Book Review - Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

In July, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, won the Golden Booker, awarded for the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize. His latest novel, Warlight, may be more subdued but, nevertheless, is a beautifully crafted work of fiction that shares similar themes. Both are set in the aftermath of the Second World War, explore the unreliability of memory and feature shadowy characters with hidden motives. Ondaatje takes time to construct his multi-layered narrative and delivers it in fragments. Julian Barnes once remarked that “narrative tension is primarily about withholding information” and Ondaatje is the master of concealment.

It’s 1945 and everything in fourteen-year-old Nathanial’s world is shrouded in secrecy from the moment his mother and father leave him and his elder sister, Rachel, in the care of an enigmatic figure they nickname The Moth. Their father, they are told, has been promoted to take over Unilever’s office in Singapore. Their mother, Rose, will dutifully follow him. Nathanial and his sister hate their English boarding schools and elect to return to their London home. There they are presided over by their guardian, who they believe to be a criminal, while their parents remain absent. The blackout curtains are no longer needed, but a dusky, warlight remains: “There were parts of the city where you saw no one, only a few children, walking solitary, listless as small ghosts. It was a time of war ghosts, the grey buildings unlit, even at night, their shattered windows still covered over with black material where glass had been. The city still felt wounded, uncertain of itself.”

Nathanial admits he has entered “a borderless terrain between adolescence and adulthood.” A youthful narrator, we understand, is more likely to misread adults, misunderstand secrets, confuses truth and lies and may not recognise a threat until it is too late. Nathanial spends time with a friend of The Moth, a shady character known as The Pimlico Darter for his boxing prowess and hailed as “the best welterweight north of the river.” His real name, we learn, is Norman Marshall and he is a consummate smuggler. Nathanial works with The Darter on a river barge transporting illegal cargo, including greyhounds, from France. Here, also, the gloom permeates everything as they travel “through the dark, quiet waters of the river…We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years where blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.”

Light and shade are clearly symbolic in Ondaatje’s novel. On one occasion, The Moth tells Nathanial, by the “small fall of red gaslight”, a devastating childhood memory he has supressed. Another time, Rachel and Nathanial accompany The Darter’s resourceful girlfriend, Olive Lawrence, a geographer and ethnographer, through the dark trees of Streatham Common so that they can better hear the sounds of nocturnal nature. Years later, Nathanial finds comfort in the shade of a Mulberry tree, “its depth and silence,” where, out of direct sunlight, he can observe close-up, “the ants in the grass climbing their green towers.”

Lies and disguise are also potent motifs. As Nathanial observes early on: “It was a time of true and false recollections.” He does not know who to trust and his own sense of identity is vague. His sexual awakening is similarly shrouded in mystery. Nathanial begins an affair with a teenage waitress who he meets in “semi-dark rooms” in empty houses on the market with her estate agent brother. She takes on the “nom de plume” of Agnes, after a particular street they frequent, but for Nathanial, she remains unknowable. Nathanial hears her true name just once. He swiftly forgets it, only to be reminded of it in Warlight’s stunning denouement.

Ondaatje’s title refers to the time in which the book is set, to the shadowy world of espionage, and the flickering quality of memories. The second half of the novel is set in Suffolk in 1959. Nathanial, now twenty-eight, works in the Foreign Office and is trying to make sense of the past. Gradually he uncovers what his mother was doing during the war, why she left her children after it had ended, and why her life remained in danger. In his trademark, lyrical prose, Ondaatje keeps the reader guessing until the end but, when he does reveal the truth, we realise the clues have been scattered throughout the narrative.

Originally published by New Humanist