‘A stab at truth’: my grandmother and the problem with family histories

Secrets, missing pieces and shocking opinions: writing a family’s story is never simple. Can a biographer tell the truth without rewriting the past?

In his mid 30s Michael Ondaatje, who grew up in Sri Lanka but was by then living in Canada, realised he had “slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood”. So he returned, determined to talk to his relations and “touch them into words”, which is a kind of comprehension. Those words became Running in the Family, which conjures up a vivid world of rackety, racy, disappearing privilege, of overgrown garden and monsoon, of generous, eccentric people given to amateur dramatics and a kind of wild, untethered, grief-laced chasing of fun. So vivid, in fact, that a note in the acknowledgements comes as a slight shock: “I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’. And if ...