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Running in the Family

by Michael Ondaatje

ISBN 0140069666 / 9780140069662 / 0-14-006966-6
Publisher Penguin Books
Language English
Edition Softcover
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Book summary

Picture The Great Gatsby with heat, tea plantations, and even more gin and you've got part of Michael Ondaatje's 1982 Running in the Family. Set in Ondaatje's native Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Running begins with the champagne shenanigans of competitively romantic upper-class youths swept up in that first global trend, the Jazz Age: "They all went swimming again with just the modesty of the night. An arm touched a face. A foot touched a stomach. They could have almost drowned or fallen in love." The main characters to emerge from this frolicking set of dancers and drinkers are Ondaatje's parents, and it is upon them that the book turns from moonlit serenades to financial and emotional ruin.

Part travelogue, part family memoir (complete with photographs), part collection of poems, Running is also a poignant autobiography/biography that reimagines the alcoholism of Ondaatje's father Mervyn and the eventual (inevitable?) divorce of his parents. In telling these tall tales, Ondaatje is affectionate and insightful toward a father who was clearly difficult to accommodate in life. Driving intoxicated over a rickety wooden bridge no one else would trust in any condition, Mervyn turns to young Michael to wink and claim, "God loves a drunk."

Running marks the commencement of Ondaatje's growing interest in migration (does running run in the family?). The expatriate characters of Ondaatje's later novels are here presaged by a generation of Ceylonese steaming off to England for education and an enduring love of cricket. Salman Rushdie knows that "the past is a country from which we are all migrants." In Running in the Family, Ondaatje reaches back, inwards, and abroad to map that most treasured and troubled of places, the human heart. --Darryl Whetter [via]