Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Anil’s Ghost is the critically acclaimed fourth novel by Michael Ondaatje, first published in 2000.

Anil’s Ghost follows the life of Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan who left to study in the United States on a scholarship, during which time she has become a forensic anthropologist. She returns to Sri Lanka in the midst of its merciless civil war as part of a Human Rights Investigation by the United Nations. Anil, along with archaeologist Sarath Diyasena, discovers the skeleton of a recently burned victim in a government area. With the help of the mysterious Sarath, Anil sets out to identify the skeleton, nicknamed Sailor, and bring about justice for the nameless victims of the war.

Below you’ll find links about the author Micahel Ondeatje and information about the novel Anil’s Ghost. Clicking each link will open up a new window.

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje Biography
A detailed biography about Michael Ondaatje who is perhaps Sri Lanka’s most well known author. It provides a background into his life, including his migration from Sri Lanka to Canada through England and a brief look into the various novels he has written and the awards that he has won. It also discusses his style of work (whether it is written or visual), described his work as a “blend or counterpoising the factual and the imaginary, poetry and prose.”

Anil’s Ghost
Anil’s Ghost Summary
This website presents a  very good summary into Anil’s Ghost, which discusses the background of why the main character Anil has been brought to Sri Lanka and what Anil and the “team” encounter on their way of finding the real identity of the body of “Sailor.” The elements of “truth” and “justice” are raised, as Anil finds trials and tribulations that hinder her search of who Sailor really is and who really was behind “Sailors” death.

Sri Lanka Human Rights Issues – Amnesty USA
Written by Amnesty USA (the USA arm of the international non-government organisation Amnesty International), this article provides a background behind the premise of the novel “Anil’s Ghost,” the Sri Lankan civil war, which has been raging between the security forces (who are mostly from the majority Sinhalese community) and the armed Tamil opposition group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since 1983.

The website also contains several YouTube videos about the effects of the civil war, ranging from displacement of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire to a video montage about those who were and still continue to be affected by the civil war. It also contains various links to other parts of the website referring to press releases and latest updates concerning the civil war.

The implications of the Sri Lankan civil war have even reached Australia, with various protests held across Australia (and other parts of the world) in 2009 calling for cease fire. An article about the march can be found here.

Discussion on Anil’s Ghost
This website presents a brief summary of the book but what is best about this review is the discussion questions at the bottom of the page. While some allude to Ondaatje’s other work, majority relate to “Anil’s Ghost” and are very useful in understanding the concept and context of the book while also discussing the conventions, writing style and subversion of genre in the novel.  Answering the questions will most definitely allow a better understanding and engagement within the text.

Themes of “Good and Evil” within Anil’s Ghost
A constant theme within “Anil’s Ghost,” this article talks about the clash of good and evil or more specifically, Eastern and Western cultural values as represented by two main protagonists – Sarath and Anil. While philosophical in its treatment of “good versus evil” and “Eastern culture versus Western culture,” it does paint a picture for the reader about the differences that Anil brings back to her native homeland after studying abroad to become a forensic pathologist.

This article also talks about the covering up of “the truth” and censorship which plays a big part in the novel in the hunt to find the real identity and murderer/s of “Sailor.” All topics within the article allude to the subversion of the elements of the crime-fiction, as it adapts a predominantly Western genre into a context of an Eastern culture. The subversion runs deeper than the fact that the protagonist Anil is a female and is a forensic pathologist, not a detective.

Anil’s Ghost Analysis
A brief review of the novel that points out how “Anil’s Ghost” isn’t essentially like other plot-based page-turner, where you simply want to find out what happened next and next, but yet the plot is simply the device that holds the important elements or “jewels” together.

It does well to put the “murder/s” into an international and political context and by describing how the lack of closure in the end of the novel or the lack of attention brought to Anil’s obsession to the crime, it also shows how this novel is unlike traditional crime fiction texts. As there is an unexpected ending and no real closure as the crimes will not end, the ”solving” of the crime is replaced by the solace and hope “found” in the redemptive powers of art.

This is a video of Michael Ondaatje reading a section of Anil’s Ghost at the Festival of International Literature in New York City

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje worksheet (downloadable .pdf file here)

Click here to visit the next prescribed text “Skull Beneath The Skin” by P.D James

Images (from descending order)
1. Anil’s Ghost cover. Retrieved August 20, 2010 from
2. Michael Ondaatje. Retrieved August 20, 2010 from
3. Map of Sri Lanka. Retrieved August 20, 2010 from
4. Handprint. Retrieved August 20, 2010 from
5. Anil and Sailor. Retrieved August 2010 from

1. Pen America Centre (2009). Michael Ondaatje Reads from Anil’s Ghost. Retrieved August 21, 2010 from