Thursday, June 28, 2012

Canadian Reading Challenge: Running in the Family - Michael Ondaatje

Now this is how you do a memoir!  None of this putting down the facts straightforwardly so that The Onion or your family can, after parsing each phrase and line, accuse you of getting it all wrong.  No, instead weave a hot, scented, voluptuous web around readers and pour out a torrent of images and scents and dancing and drunkenness and eccentric family members and wild family stories told half-in and half-out of magical realism and, of course, an exotic setting (like Ceylon, "that pendant off the ear of India") helps.  And the poems!  Don't forget the poems, especially "The Cinnamon Peeler's Wife".  After the poetic interlude, return to random bits and pieces of memory, shiny but with sharp edges and beautifully strung, like a beaded necklace.

 Oh, Michael Ondaatje!  I've been around the block enough to know seductive writing, but Running in the Family feels more like the verb form rather than the adjectival.  Seduce, seducing, seduced!  I didn't read this book; it washed over me.  My head's in a swirl and I want a cigarette.  After I've smoked it, I want to move to Ceylon.  Yes, I know it's now called Sri Lanka, but I'll call it Ceylon in my secret heart.  Check out this exquisite descriptive paragraph, especially that last sentence.  I nearly swooned:

   I sit in a house on Buller's Road.  I am the foreigner.  I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner.  Looking out on overgrown garden and the two dogs who bark at everything, who fling themselves into the air towards bird and squirrel.  Ants crawl onto the desk to taste whatever is placed here.  Even my glass, which holds just ice water, has brought out a dozen who wade into the rim of liquid the tumbler leaves, checking it for sugar.  We are back within the heat of Columbo, in the hottest month of the year.  It is delicious heat.  Sweat runs with its own tangible life down a body as if a giant egg has been broken onto our shoulders.

The book is shot through with irresistible writing in that vein.  Choosing just one quote was difficult, and even slightly painful, but it was that pleasurable sort of pain.  Read Running in the Family and see for yourself.   If it's summer where you are, so much the better.  What a brilliant, intoxicating finish to the 5th Canadian Reading Challenge.


Unknown said...

Well that is a powerful recommendation. I've always been a bit mixed about Ondaatje's work. I always admire it, but I think I feel mixed because I don't always admire it as much as his fans do. This one, however, sounds like a very good read.

Carrie K said...

That paragraph does make the book sound a bit irresistible.....

edgar said...

I enjoyed Running in the Family. I remember the beautiful narrative of how Lalla, his grandmother,was carried by the flood to the sea.

The English Patients is one of my favorite books.

Susan said...

I've been meaning to read him for ages. This book was well received in Canada and is one that i keep seeing referred to. I'm about to join the challenge, and I would like to read one Michael Ondaatje book this year for it. Liked your review, and it's so very HOT here in Ottawa that it could be Sri Lanka, including the humidity. Ugh. Fans just aren't keeping us cool right now!

Doesn't Ceylon sound more romantic? I love Ceylon tea too.