Anil's Ghost
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3.57 / 5

"Anil's Ghost" Summary

By Michael Ondaatje

fiction | 320 pages | Published in 2011


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

A forensic anthropologist investigates a mysterious murder in war-torn Sri Lanka.


In this book summary, we delve into the world of "Anil's Ghost" written by Michael Ondaatje. With his characteristic lyrical prose, Ondaatje takes readers on a gripping journey through Sri Lanka's tumultuous history. This novel explores themes of identity, trauma, and the search for justice in the face of violence and political unrest. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist, readers are invited to uncover the mysteries of Sri Lanka's past and confront the harrowing consequences of its brutal civil war.

Brief Synopsis

The story is set in the aftermath of Sri Lanka's civil war, a conflict that lasted nearly three decades and resulted in immense loss of life and widespread devastation. Anil Tissera, a Sri Lankan-born forensic anthropologist, returns to her homeland after spending years abroad, determined to identify the victims of the brutal conflict and bring justice to their families.

Anil is joined in her quest by Sarath Diyasena, a Sri Lankan government official, and Sarath's childhood friend, Gamini. Together, they navigate a landscape scarred by violence and political corruption. Anil's expertise in forensic anthropology is crucial in the identification of skeletal remains, shedding light on the atrocities committed during the war.

As Anil delves deeper into her investigation, she encounters a mysterious man known as "Sailor." Sailor is an enigmatic character connected to the shadowy world of the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group involved in the civil war. Anil becomes fascinated by Sailor's conflicting loyalties and his cryptic knowledge of Sri Lanka's hidden past.

Main Characters

Anil TisseraAs a forensic anthropologist, Anil possesses a keen analytical mind and a deep desire for justice. Her return to Sri Lanka triggers a personal journey of self-discovery and confrontations with her own identity.
SarathSarath Diyasena is a Sri Lankan government official and childhood friend of Gamini. He becomes Anil's ally in her quest for justice and grapples with the complexities of his country's history and politics.
GaminiGamini is Sarath's childhood friend, who resurfaces during their investigation. His experiences during the civil war have left him haunted, and he struggles to find his place in a society marked by violence and division.

Main Events

  1. Anil Tissera arrives in Sri Lanka and reunites with Sarath, who introduces her to the world of forensic anthropology.
  2. Anil and Sarath start working together to investigate human rights abuses committed during the civil war.
  3. Anil encounters a mysterious man named Sailor, who has ties to the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group involved in the war.
  4. Anil's investigation leads her to uncover mass graves and identify victims, bringing a sense of closure to grieving families.
  5. Anil becomes increasingly drawn to Sailor and his elusive connection to Sri Lanka's dark past.
  6. Anil and Sailor embark on a dangerous journey to the Tamil Tiger stronghold, where they hope to find answers and closure.
  7. The novel culminates in a tense confrontation between Anil, Sailor, and other key characters, as the truth behind Sri Lanka's history is revealed.

Themes and Insights

Identity and Belonging

"Anil's Ghost" explores the theme of identity and the search for belonging. Anil, as a Sri Lankan expatriate, grapples with her sense of homecoming and the dislocation she feels as an outsider in her own country. Through Anil's journey, the novel raises questions about how personal and national identity are shaped by history, trauma, and cultural heritage.

Violence and its Consequences

The civil war serves as a backdrop for the exploration of violence and its far-reaching consequences. Ondaatje vividly portrays the devastating impact of war on individuals and communities, highlighting the experiences of trauma, loss, and displacement. He delves into the motivations of those who perpetrate violence and the lasting scars it leaves on survivors.

The Complexity of History

Through the intertwined narratives of the characters, the novel highlights the complex and contested nature of history. Ondaatje emphasizes the importance of acknowledging multiple perspectives and the difficulty of uncovering the truth in a society deeply divided by political and ethnic strife.

Memory and Remembrance

"Anil's Ghost" delves into the power of memory and the act of remembrance. The characters grapple with the weight of history and the moral responsibility to remember and honor the victims of violence. The novel raises questions about the role of art, literature, and storytelling in preserving collective memory and shaping a nation's narrative.

Reader's Takeaway

"Anil's Ghost" is a beautifully written and thought-provoking novel that explores the complexities of identity, trauma, and the search for justice in the aftermath of war. Ondaatje's lyrical prose keeps readers engaged throughout the narrative, while his vivid descriptions bring Sri Lanka's landscape and history to life. This book challenges readers to question their own understanding of history, memory, and the ethical choices we make in the pursuit of truth.


With "Anil's Ghost," Michael Ondaatje weaves a haunting tale that combines a gripping investigation with introspection on the impact of violence and the complexities of identity. Through his richly drawn characters and intricate storytelling, Ondaatje explores themes of trauma, memory, and the search for justice. This novel is a powerful meditation on the lasting consequences of war and the resilience of the human spirit.

Anil's Ghost FAQ

  1. What is the genre of 'Anil's Ghost'?

    The genre of 'Anil's Ghost' is contemporary literature.

  2. Who is the author of 'Anil's Ghost'?

    The author of 'Anil's Ghost' is Michael Ondaatje.

  3. What is the main theme of 'Anil's Ghost'?

    The main theme of 'Anil's Ghost' is the search for identity and the impact of war on individuals.

  4. What is the setting of 'Anil's Ghost'?

    The story is set in Sri Lanka during the country's civil war.

  5. Who is the protagonist of 'Anil's Ghost'?

    The protagonist is Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist.

  6. What is the plot of 'Anil's Ghost'?

    The novel follows Anil Tissera as she returns to her native Sri Lanka to investigate human rights abuses and the disappearance of individuals during the civil war.

  7. Are there any notable supporting characters in 'Anil's Ghost'?

    Yes, notable supporting characters include Sarath Diyasena, a government archaeologist, and Ananda Obeid, a former soldier.

  8. Is 'Anil's Ghost' based on real events?

    Although 'Anil's Ghost' is a work of fiction, it is influenced by the real events of the Sri Lankan civil war.

  9. What are the critical reviews of 'Anil's Ghost'?

    Critical reviews of 'Anil's Ghost' have been mostly positive, praising its poetic language and exploration of complex themes.

  10. Has 'Anil's Ghost' won any awards?

    Yes, 'Anil's Ghost' won the Giller Prize in 2000 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.