In the Skin of a Lion covers the years 1913 – 1938, and is set in the city of Toronto and surrounding rural areas. It is a time of industrialization and growth for Toronto, a change that could not be accomplished without the labor of immigrants.
The focus of the novel is on bringing to life the otherwise invisible manual labor that built integral structures in the city of Toronto, such as the Bloor Street Bridge and the tunnel under Lake Ontario that now provides all of the water filtration for the city. One of the biggest themes in the book is the contrast between the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor immigrant laborers, many of whom lost their lives in the dangerous work of building the infrastructure we take for granted today.
In effect, In the Skin of a Lion is a novel of Toronto in the way that Tales of the City is of San Francisco or Devil in the White City is of Chicago. While the novel's characterizations are deeply felt and richly observed, the city of Toronto itself is just as well-developed and present in the story.
It is a messy novel, with shifting perspectives and interweaving stories. Characters are introduced and discarded immediately, while others make oblique appearances throughout the novel while never receiving much explanation. Focus tightens on miniscule details of a construction project and then flies out to observe an entire city. It is, most of all, a poetic work, with rich sensory observations and complex feelings expressed in single words.