Ondaatje’s lilting language and leisurely narration gives the cloak-and-dagger world of post-war espionage a poetic texture," writes Carol D'Souza.
Living in the 21st century, one’s World War II references are bound to be second hand. Reading Warlight is like being slowly drawn into and being submerged in the shadow world of the last years of war and the tentative post-war decades with all their secrecy and fragmentary memories.
The book opens in London with the 14 year old narrator Nathaniel Williams stating “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Nathaniel and his 16 year old sister, Rachel, are left behind, ostensibly so that the father can take up a promotion at Unilever in Singapore. The first half of the book is the journey of the young siblings in the care of their guardian who they re-christen as ‘The Moth’ and their interaction with the colourful (/shady) company he keeps, among whom an ex-boxer and a greyhound smuggler nicknamed ‘the Darter’ ends up being significant. Ondaatje, with language that envelops, draws the reader into the dimly lit world of war-battered London. Rich in detail, the world comes alive especially through the eyes of a young narrator. But maybe it’s the detailed single person account that leaves the reader with a sense that things may not be as they seem, that a 14 year old abandoned boy's view of the world is necessarily coloured. Early on, the children find out that their mother, Rose, is engaged in post-war intelligence work. Rose permeates the whole book, both in presence and in absence. While Rachel cannot forgive her mother for the childhood abandonment, no matter how important the reasons, Nathaniel, who is more ambiguous in his position, spends a good chunk of his life trying to unravel the mystery of his mother. Second half of the book follows the grown-up Nathaniel’s quest to piece together his mother’s life. “You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not a reliving, but a rewitnessing.”
Michael Ondaatje, a Canadian born in Sri Lanka, is one of the few novelists who were full-fledged poets before turning to prose. Best known internationally for his book The English Patient (1992) which was a joint winner of the Booker Prize and was also made into a film, Ondaatje’s last novel was the critically acclaimed The Cat’s Table (2011).
In Warlight, his first novel in seven years, Ondaatje with his poetic language brings home to the reader the fact that no two people experience their reality in the same way. Siblings in the same situation, colleagues at the same job, a man and a woman in love, no two stories from two people are alike. In his attempt to connect with his adventurous youth, Nathaniel, years later, tracks down ‘ the Darter’ and attempts to reminisce about the old days on the river smuggling greyhounds, only to find that Darter caught in the difficult realities of his family life is too removed from the past to be nostalgic. In a flash Nathaniel sees that nobody is on the same page, people he knew in his youth have moved on and do not recall the past with the same fondness, maybe they never were fond of it. “They were in a busy life, where each farthing mattered, where every tube of toothpaste was bought at a specific price. What was happening to them was the real story, while I still existed only in the maze of my mother’s life.”
Warlight is dotted with interesting female characters. Olive Lawrence, an ethnographer and one of Darter’s many girlfriends (“I like women smarter than me”), impresses upon Nathaniel the insignificance of self. “Remember that. Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” Rachel is steadfastly unromantic in her treatment of separation, grief and abandonment. Hinting at the reader what a clear-eyed perception of the siblings’ childhood would look like. Then there is the mysterious Rose, the children’s mother, whom the reader discovers as the narrator does, of whom it’s said, “Because what she wanted, I suspect, was a world she could fully participate in, even if it meant not being fully and safely loved.”
Warlight is an immersive read that draws the reader into its half-lit world gradually. Ondaatje’s lilting language and leisurely narration gives the cloak-and-dagger world of post-war espionage a poetic texture.
Penguin Random House UK
Carol D’Souza is a research scholar and an avid reader.