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.