'Running in the Family' - Book Review

Running in the Family
by Michael Ondaatje
McClelland & Stewart Inc., 206p.

Michael Ondaatje is one of Canada's best known writers. He says that this is a biography of his family. I think Wikipedia describes it better: "Running in the Family is a fictionalized memoir, written in post-modern style involving aspects of magic realism." I consider it an oddly Canadian book: the vast majority of the book takes place in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) - but a huge section of Canadian fiction and non-fiction is about identity and roots, and that's what this is about.

What we know for sure is that Ondaatje went back to Sri Lanka a couple of times, and talked to a lot of family and a lot of friends of family to assemble this absurdist vision of his family, and particularly of his parents. This isn't structured like a novel and it's not chronological: instead it's a series of vignettes, sometimes dialogue, letters, or poetry. The prose is ... luminous. Incredibly evocative. Ondaatje is at heart a poet, possessing a skill with words I can only dream of.

I've read a couple of Ondaatje's other books ("The English Patient," "In the Skin of a Lion"), and attempted to read a couple more. This is - I think - my third reading of this one. I find this by far his most approachable: his other books are often very dark, and his need to have a plot in a novel never works out terribly well when he's so much better at fractured vignettes and/or creating a mood. Which is why the odd structure of this book is so well suited to his writing style. This remains one of my favourite books by any author.

An ironic postscript is that Level 42's "Running in the Family" - particularly the title song - is one of my favourite albums. The Level 42 album came out after the book: I have no idea if the title is related to the book.