Running in the Family

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Plot Summary

A Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist and poet, Philip Michael Ondaatje, wrote Running in the Family. He is best known for writing The English Patient. But this book is not a work of fiction; instead, it is a memoir from his youth in Sri Lanka. The events happening in the book can be classified as creative non-fiction. The book is written in postmodern style, with writing from the perspective of different real-life individuals and refraining from stringing narrative together in an orderly fashion. The focus of the book is Michael's family. The Ondaatje family had lived in Ceylon for centuries, so he has a large number of relatives who live there. The main focus of the book is on his alcoholic father, Mervyn Ondaatje. He also focuses on his outrageous grandmother Lalla. In the acknowledgments, Michael notes that his book is a "composite," or a mixture of his two return journeys to Sri Lanka in 1978 and 1980. He stayed for several months each time, first traveling alone and then with his family. He and his sister Gillian also researched around the island. Gillian, his sister Janet and his brother Christopher helped him to recreate the events that had happened at certain occasions in the past. His raw material came from numerous friends, family and acquaintances across the island. The book explores a variety of themes; a few of which are very important is family, social expectations, addiction, the memory of youth, and loneliness. Ondaatje is focused primarily on exploring his family and these themes; as a result, the book is not structured around a single narrative. It is comprised of seven large chapters that contain various sketches of memories, interviews and reports that are separated as sub-chapters. For instance, Chapter 1, "Asian Rumors" has two sub-chapters, "Asia" and "Jaffna Afternoons." The first sub-chapter covers Michael's return trip to Sri Lanka and the second mostly discusses the old governor's house on the island. The other six chapters cover more general topics. Chapter 2, "A Fine Romance" discusses his parents' meeting and their marriage along with a variety of other small but related matters. Chapter 3, "Don't Talk to Me About Matisse" explores Ceylon, its history, geography, flora and fauna. Chapter 4, "Eclipse Plumage" is about Michael's grandmother, Lalla. Chapter 5, "The Prodigal" outlines his father's alcoholism and his outrageous antics as a young man in Ceylon. Chapter 6, "What We Think of Married Life" explains his parents', Doris and Mervyn's marriage and the problems they faced, largely due to Mervyn's drinking. And in Chapter 7, "The Ceylon Cactus and Succulent Society", Michael covers Mervyn's sad decline into depression and obesity, lamenting the fact that his father would never let him and his family into his emotional life. While the book is fictionalized for the most part, Ondaatje notes that, "In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts." The reader must approach the book knowing ahead of time that not all the evens occurring in this novel are 100% true. As well, it should be noted that Michael created this novel “not (as) a history but a portrait of “gesture”. The point of the book is to draw out the themes from his youth, not necessarily to record his past as it truly was.

Dialogues Summary and Analysis

The whole chapter is composed of letters talking about Mervyn and the different incidences the people who wrote the letters experienced with him. The first letter talks about how someone close to Ondaatje, possibly a sibling, was in the car with “the three older children” and Mervyn as he was drunk. He passed out on the wheel, almost causing the car and it’s contents to go flying over the cliff. The car had its two wheels hanging over the edge, and the axel was preventing the fall. The kids managed to balance the car while one of the smaller children left the car to get help. The car was in the middle of the road by the time Mervyn had wakened up. The second...
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