Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
In the late 1970s Ondaatje returned to his native island of Sri Lanka. As he records his journey through the drug-like heat and intoxicating fragrances of that “pendant off the ear of India, ” Ondaatje simultaneously retraces the baroque mythology of his Dutch-Ceylonese family. An inspired travel narrative and family memoir by an exceptional writer.
Another piece that I was required to read for my advanced nonfiction writing class. It was very different from the others (Maya Angelou and Geoffrey Wolff) in topic, writing style, and flow.
Running in the Family was difficult to read and dive into, at first. The writing style is disjointed and the timeline of the narrative jumbles and hops around. Within each section of chapters, the paragraph could begin with a story about the narrator’s grandmother, and end with paddies and riding on trains. However, after reading for a few hours and sinking into the rhythm of the text, I began to notice a pattern to the prose, poetry, dialogue, and photographs.
In order to me to understand this memoir, I pretended the narrator was a friend of mine, sharing a scrapbook of his family and telling stories about each photograph. Beautiful prose would describe the landscape of Sri Lanka, then memories of a family member and their adventures in Sri Lanka would spark, and from those stories a narrative about an adventure in England would branch. When I approached the memoir in this fashion, it was much easier to follow and discover the links from one family member to the next – and finally to the story of the narrator’s mother and father.
Another aspect of this memoir that is worth noting: while Wolff and Angelou repeatedly reminded the readers of their cultural background, their race, their history, Ondaatje’s identity was mixed. This colonial interpretation was so intricately woven that his own racial and cultural identity was vague. I understood that he was Dutch, but there were so many English, Canadian, and American ties within the Sri Lanka life that understanding Ondaatje’s identity and the identity of his family members became blurred. The jury’s still out figuring out if I liked that or not.
It was a good read, a bit difficult, but I do not think I’ll pick this book up again. And for that, I give it:
Rating: ★★ of 5
Goodreads: 3.88 of 5