Most helpful positive review
53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Lush, evocative, and poetic!
on July 5, 2000
"Running in the Family" is an impressionistically written and reflective memoir of Michael Ondaatje's eccentric Ceylonese family.
The book begins with a series of disjointed stories about Ondaatje's parents and grandparents. I found this part somewhat hard to get through as Ondaatje drops into the stories without providing the reader with the necessary information to understand who the players are and why they are important. However, since the book is highly impressionistic in style, perhaps this approach works. After all, most of us learn about our family history in bits and pieces; we don't pick up yarns and memory bites in chronological order.
The third section, "Don't Talk to Me about Matisse" is a literary treasure! Ondaatje weaves a travel journal with childhood memories. Ondaatje's journey through Sri Lanka and memory land is depicted with great passion and reflection: "I witnessed everything. One morning I would wake and just smell things for the whole day, it was so rich I had to select senses. And still everything moved slowly with the assured fateful speed of a coconut falling on someone's head, like the Jaffna train, like the fan at low speed, like the necessary sleep in the afternoon with dreams blinded by toddy."
Ondaatje generously included several of his poems in the middle of the book. "The Cinnamon Peeler", with its strong sensuality, serves as a fitting metaphor for the stories about romantic interludes in the author's family. "The Cinnamon Peeler" is so beautiful, I plan to commit it to memory.
Ondaatje dwells on the salient qualities of his relatives and homeland. If this book were a painting, it would be a mostly green wash of color with bright, blood red splashes. The red splashes could represent the tragedy so inherent in Ondaatje's family history. Alcoholism and mental illness rule the house in this family. There are many humorous moments, however, and Ondaatje delivers them with great bravado: "Lalla's great claim to fame was that she was the first woman in Ceylon to have a mastectomy. ... She kept losing the contraption to servants who were mystified by it as well as to the dog, Chindit, who would be found gnawing at the foam as if it were tender chicken." These hilarious memories give the reader a reprieve from the underlying tragedy like a much-needed downpour during a drought.
In the final sections, Ondaatje slowly reveals the many layers of his father's sad, but remarkable life. One chapter, called "Dialogues" merely consists of bits and pieces of conversations about his father. Whether Ondaatje imagined these conversations or actually heard them retold is not important. They give homage to his father in a unique and poignant way.
If you're looking for a travel journal on Sri Lanka, don't look here. But, if you want unforgettable impressions of an exotic land and a remarkable family, if you yearn for a memoir rendered with the finest of literary care, "Running in the Family" will surely please.