For many reasons, I connected with this book. I was completely taken by surprise because I didn’t realise how lost I felt until I read it. Like Ondaatje, I grew up in a mixed family. Unlike Ondaatje, I have never met the extended family, nor been to the country both my grandmother and grandfather were raised. But I have always felt, just like the undertones this book conveys, a need to know my family – both alive and deceased.
What I love about this book is that Ondaatje paints the picture of his dysfunctional family beautifully. He begins the story with his revelation that he needs to leave. He’s completely drunk and realises that he needs to go. This is contrasted with, not only his father but his grandmother. His grandmother led an extraordinary life but was also drunk for the most it – a trait that clearly his father inherits. But my favourite scene that Ondaatje paints, and it is painted for there is no evidence of her death nor any witnesses, is her journey during the monsoon. She floats in harmony with the earth in her drunk haze until she exists no more. The journey is so metaphorical to her addiction, to the ups and downs of life. But, most importantly, on her journey she sees others getting help but nobody tries to help her. In the end, just like the alcohol, it causes her life to stop.
This book, I would say, is more of an homage to his father. In it, he discusses and tries to understand his father’s life – a man he clearly doesn’t know as he spent much of his life avoiding or living on the other side of the planet. He tells the reader that his father has always been somewhat of a trouble maker – using the time his father pretended to study at Cambridge as an example. He was wild and loose, yet when it came down to it, he was a family man. Whilst he caused mayhem wherever he went because of the alcohol he consumed, the example Ondaatje uses of the train antics is a good one, he didn’t want to disrupt his children’s lives, especially later in life when all they received was letters of how well he was doing when the reality was he was already spiralling to what I can only assume was depression.
I can see why Ondaatje wanted to crack the code that was his father. Growing up primarily with his mother, he had a good understanding of the way she worked. He has a keen understanding of what his mother was like, why she did things the ways she did, but more importantly who she was. He describes her as a lover of poetry, dramatic, a dancer. A real patron of the arts. But his father was an enigma – or at least that’s how I felt reading it.
One thing I will admit whilst reading is that I did get confused. The narrative jumps between grandmother, mother, and father and at times I found myself confused as to when things were happening. There is no clear chronological line in Ondaatje’s story, which at first annoyed me to no end. But as I neared the end it became a little clearer as to why. Ondaatje decided to start this story with his revelation – drunk and, so he probably felt, clear minded for the first time. I know I have made decisions that I have both regretted and loved whilst drunk, but for Ondaatje, it must have seemed that this was his time to go back. So the story is more of a narrative of his journey, I think. Everything would be scattered in time and place because, especially if you were learning it second hand, you learn bits and pieces out of order. You never get the full linear, nor will you ever unless it’s your own life (and even that’s debatable). So yes, the story is out of order and you learn things in and out of place – but that’s life.
The one line that stuck with me whilst reading was this one:
“(in regards to his mother) she belonged to a type of Ceylonese family whose women would take the minutest reaction from another and blow it up into a tremendously exciting tale, then later use it as an example of someone’s strain of character” (p.186)
and I think it just captured the book perfectly in a way that quite possibly wasn’t intended. We are our parents. We may try not to be or may disregard the statement entirely, but we are in small ways. This entire book is filled with ‘exciting tale’s’ twisted to further understand his family. The novel is called ‘Running in the Family’ which automatically confirms this. Its entire meaning is something, a trait or a disease – a quality of being – that the whole family has. For example, in my family, there is an inability to handle serious situations. It manifests in many ways, such as cracking jokes at inappropriate times or reacting in a way that is not appropriate to the situation – such as breaking down into tears for little things with very easy solutions. But every member of my family suffers from it – and it stems from my father.
For Ondaatje, this would be the alcohol abuse. The sense of grandeur that is littered throughout the story – for, even when they are ‘poor’, their houses are extravagant and beautiful. It’s the inability to communicate what they really feel about one another. And it runs in the family because no matter how hard you try, at the end of the day your family makes you. Good or bad, these memories stick.