To Be Read as a Collection of Magic and Poetry

Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient, wrote a memoir about his Sri Lankan family called Running in the Family.

The style of this book is quite different from other memoirs. The cover of my book has a blurb by Maxine Hong Kingston which calls what is inside the book “a truly magical world.” Since Kingston created her own magical worlds in The Woman Warrior and China Men, she’s a good judge of that. But Ondaatje’s book is not as tied to narrative as books by Kingston. In fact, the book has a few poems threaded throughout–and much of the prose moves beyond the lyrical to the truly poetic.

The book is very beautiful, and many readers have a very emotional response to the style of the book. When I began reading, I had the wrong mindset. I was expecting  a narrative. Big mistake. What I should have done was prepare myself by understanding that I would be reading a collection of magic and poetry.

The book is not tied to narrative or history. If a reader doesn’t know anything about Sri Lankan history or the racial structure of the country, she will miss a lot of what is going on–will, in fact, get the wrong idea about a lot in the book. But if the reader does know, what Ondaatje does so very well is to create the mood of a long gone time and place. In that way he is very Fitzgerald-ish.

My favorite parts of the book are the magical realism story of his unique grandmother who walked into a flood and the poem “The Cinnamon Peeler.” Here is a little taste of Ondaatje’s style with his lovely descriptive abilities and his dysfunctional relatives:

Only the mangosteen tree, which I practically lived in as a child during its season of fruit, was full and strong. At the back, the kitul tree still leaned against the kitchen–tall, with tiny yellow berries which the polecat used to love. Once a week it would climb up and spend the morning eating the berries and come down drunk, would stagger over the lawn pulling up flowers or come into the house to up-end drawers of cutlery and serviettes. Me and my polecat, my father said after one occasion when their drunks coincided, my father lapsing into his songs.

And now I will admit I have not yet read The English Patient. Or seen the movie.

What I learned from this memoir is that memoirists are free to cross boundaries–even into fantasy and poetry.



Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

35 responses to “To Be Read as a Collection of Magic and Poetry

  1. That excerpt does sound magical. I love writing like this.

  2. A wonderful review of a wonderful book. Like water, his writing washes over you. Another fantastic Ondaatje novel is “Coming Through the Slaughter”.

  3. Nice review, Luanne. I never read The English Patient, but I saw the movie. It was a little slow for me, perhaps the book was better…they usually are.

    • Was it? I wonder if I would like it. For some reason it was never a priority. I don’t see that many movies–almost none at the theater–and I suppose I too often choose cheesy disaster movies because I find them entertaining!

      • Well, since I can hardly remember it, I guess it didn’t leave much of an impact. I do remember feeling like it was lasting forever. Like you, I rarely go to the movie theater these days. From what I see, there’s not much worth seeing to shell out $12 or more and the time investment….I could be reading. 🙂

        • I admit to liking Ralph Fiennes in the movie, but, well, I like Ralph Fiennes 😉 But having not read the book, I don’t know if the movie was a good interpretation. I agree that it seemed long. I thought it was an intriguing story, but just not played out well in a movie. There were, unfortunately, a number of scenes where I just rolled my eyes. Still, those scenes could come across quite differently in a book.

  4. I never read The English Patient, but I admit I saw the movie and disliked it! I am sure the book is much better.

    • Really! I wonder what you didn’t like about the movie. I keep feeling guilty that I haven’t seen it or read the book. Isn’t that ridiculous? Please tell me it’s ridiculous.

  5. The English Patient is one of my favourite novels and I also enjoyed the movie so will definitely be reading Ondaatje’s memoir. Thanks for this 😀

  6. I love that you brought this out-of-the-box memoir style to my attention. I read The Cat’s Table recently and look forward to reading this memoir.

  7. I have never ventured into a Michael Ondaatje novel which in Canada is like saying you don’t like hockey. Maybe the memoir. 2015 is going to be the year of memoir reading for me and I will be returning to your blog to compile my top 5 list. Sounds like a good new year’s eve activity to me!

  8. This books very interesting, Luanne. I love the fact that he mentions a mangosteen tree because I have several of those in my yard and fruit is put of this world! 😀

  9. Thanks for sharing that beautiful excerpt, Luanne!

  10. I do like the way he writes just from this little excerpt you post here Luanne. Wonderfully enchanting about ‘me and my polecat’. I am so intrigued by all the different memoir styles. I have no idea what mine is lol 🙂 I haven’t read the book but I did watch the movie and thought it was…..okay-ish. But then I’m a sucker for Ralph Fiennes so that helped a lot, ha 🙂 Mind you, it was a long time ago.

    • I love that polecat bit! So funny! Yeah, the movie was a long time ago, so why did I even bring it up. I wouldn’t even have to admit I haven’t seen it, although MANY people have urged me to watch. I know when people tell me to watch something that I don’t want to see it. I’m just contrary like that.

  11. This sounds so wonderful and I hope to read some of this one. I absolutely loved “The English Patient,” Luanne. (I read it and found it more detailed and complicated than the movie. I liked the scene where the artist from India is portrayed in a sensual way, as one of the beautiful scenes in the movie, too.) Hope you are having a nice, sunny and warm day, Luanne!

    • Did you really? Ugh, that makes me feel like I need to read it! OK, I will keep it in mind for future reading. For now, I am putting the books aside and working on writing. Especially with the holidays and all coming up. Yikes!!!!! Robin, it is so beautiful here today! Very soft air, but warm and sunny. I don’t even want to ask about your weather . . . . I fear it’s bleak.

    • I didn’t mean to imply you needed to read this book (yet!) I also would not wish to add to your daunting pile of ‘to do’ things, especially don’t want to divert you from your goals, Luanne!
      I would like to read Ondaatje’s memoir, coming prepared to expect poetry in the text which present images of his life. I admire you and view you as our wonderful ‘pioneer’ and guide. By reading memoirs, then giving us your valuable opinions and thoughts, we are equipped and prepared to face the style of writing. Thanks, Luanne, for this ‘head’s up’ on the memoir today. Each time you write a review, I appreciate your effort and will someday read this book. I like how you described the weather there, Luanne. It was a little blustery today, but the sun shone yesterday, allowing some relief from the cold. Smiles!

      • Robin, you write the most beautiful, developed, and thoughtful comments. Thank you so much for your kinds words! I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your beautiful family.

  12. Luanne what a beautiful writing style, thanks for sharing a piece. I have never read nor watched The English Patient yet countless people told me it was brilliant and just as many said it was too long. I never found out for myself. That is what I adore about the written word, it can be so different for everyone.

    • Well, Kath, I can’t vouch for The English Patient LOL, but this book is beautiful. One day you and I will either read or watch The English Patient. Some day hah.

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