The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 15 September 2003

Running in the Family

by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lankan emigré to Canada. Now, after years of living abroad, he returns to his native island of Ceylon to explore the history of his parents and their family. The Ondaatjes are a notable family in Sri Lankan society, and the author's father was a drunken personality lighting up the landscape of his generation. His mother is less morose, more talkative and vivacious, but is eventually wounded by his father's drunken escapades. She moves on, leaving his father to find a new life, without who was probably his one big romance. Ondaatje uses the oral histories he gleans from aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins to weave a story that he tells with wit and compassion. It is a beautifully written history/memoir, with a tone of magical realism about it. There is much here that one can learn about Sri Lanka, its history, its tropical culture and its idiosyncratic moods. And there is the evocative tale of Ondaatje's father, mother, grandmother, and, to a lesser extent, others in the family. While the story is a more or less historical one, Ondaatje's writing is poetic. The story seems fictional and fantastic, and one might come away wanting to be able to write so about one's own family.

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Also by Ondaatje: [Coming through Slaughter]