I’ve read all but one of Michael Ondaatje’s novels, with varying degrees of enjoyment - ranging from really good to wonderful. Each are unique in subject and in method of unraveling their stories; however, all retain Ondaatje’s style. It’s a style that is hard to describe - at once uncomplicated in prose, yet with depth of character and emotion. I suppose he is able to say so much with so little.
Ondaatje’s latest release, Warlight, shows such restraint. From the innocence of a child whom we follow into adulthood, we hear from protagonist Nathaniel, unraveling his own life and that of his mother’s. Nathaniel is 15, his sister Rachel is 17 when their parents supposedly depart for Singapore for a year. The opening line lures the reader in with, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”. Nathaniel takes us through his strange adventure of post-war England; of London, a city still dark with destruction from German bombs; of dim lights and persistent fog - all that form the silhouette of warlight.
As we begin to learn more about Nathaniel’s and Rachel’s mysterious mother, we can start to know his guardians, nicknamed the Moth and the Darter, and the influence on their young lives. The characters swirling around these children live in a harsh world of war-like sedition and deceit. Yet, Ondaatje is able to weave the threads of these eccentrics and their care for these children into a beautiful and delicate tapestry. Gamblers, lovers, scientists, cooks, and climbers - the most interesting characters are introduced along the way then fade out, only to reappear later in unexpected places.
Through the layers of an unusual family unit and English espionage, the novel’s backdrop is based in truth with Ondaatje applying careful research for historical accuracy and thoughtful nuance. I sped through the book and was loathe to finish. Warlight is a poignant story, and perhaps it is time I pick up the one I haven’t read - The English Patient.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Vickie’s rating: 5 stars