Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 287 pp.
By Robert Allen Papinchak
The title of Booker-prize winning author Michael Ondaatje’s latest work, Warlight, aptly sets the atmosphere: the darkness of war casts an emotional and physical pall over this captivating novel.
Warlight was the foggy, shimmering illumination that shrouded London during the Blitz. It blanketed the city in a “nineteenth century light, shadowed and ominous.” For 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams, it covered numerous secrets of his childhood.
Ondaatje -- the author, most famously of The English Patient -- sets the first half of his new novel in 1945. Nathaniel and his “nearly” 16-year-old sister, Rachel, are left by their parents who supposedly have gone to Singapore for a year. They are “protected by the arms of strangers,” including those belonging to their mysterious “third floor lodger,” known as The Moth, and his cohort: the “smoke-like” Pimlico Darter; Olive Lawrence, a beguiling geographer-ethnographer; and an “easy going and reliable” neighbor, Sam Malakite. As Nathaniel and Rachel try to sort out the truth behind their parents’ sudden departure, they become involved in a series of misadventures.
Nathaniel is obsessed with maps. He loves how they organize places and how they give his life an order amidst chaos. In many ways, Warlight is a novel of self-discovery, the mapping of a life, or lives, as Nathaniel and Rachel come of age in the crucible of war.
Left to their own devices, it’s not long before Nathaniel and Rachel forge their independence. Unhappy at a boarding school where Nathaniel is nearly expelled for urinating in a sink, they engineer a “midweek day escape” and negotiate a deal with The Moth to be day students. This leaves them free to explore the shadowy streets of London hunting for clues to their circumstances.
It’s difficult to read the novel without thinking of Charles Dickens. Dickens’s influence hovers over names, characters, and situations throughout.
While Nathaniel is living a life of lesser expectations, he navigates “hidden locations along the Thames” in a mussel boat, helping The Moth and The Darter smuggle greyhounds for illegal dog racing. As a dishwasher in a hotel, he encounters 46-year-old “fabulist” Harry Nkoma, “a remarkable man who had a scar on his cheek,” who plays the piano, and, during lunch breaks, regales him with stories of youthful sex.
In that “borderless terrain between adolescence and adulthood,” Nathaniel meets an enigmatic, pseudonymously named 17-year-old, Agnes Street. She seduces him and they cavort naked, on “worn carpet[s]” in various abandoned houses in London, “invisible to each other in the dark.”
As the first part of this absorbing novel ends, Nathaniel and Rachel are kidnapped by unknown assailants and their errant mother inexplicably resurfaces.
The second part picks up 14 years later, when Nathaniel is 28. It zigzags back and forth, filling in the gaps of his mother’s past.
Nathaniel buys a home in Suffolk. It backs on his mother’s childhood home. It also belonged to the Malakites of his youth. He thinks it will be a way to “search out” the “unconfirmed fragments” of the “lost sequence in [his] life,” a way to make the “indistinct maps” of his childhood more “reliable and exact.”
It is the place where his 8-year-old mother first encountered a young boy, 16-year-old Marsh Felon. While Marsh is helping to thatch her parents’ roof, a “sudden gale” flings him to the ground. During Marsh’s lengthy recovery in her parents’ house, his mother nurses him back to health. The boy and the girl discover common interests—reading, drawing, languages, mathematics—that will link them together in the future.
Years later, they meet at Trinity College, a chance meeting that is destined to change everyone’s lives. Because of their innate skills, they are both recruited for investigative work in the war effort.
Nathaniel’s work in a “nameless seven-storey building” of government archives leads him to discover that “’[w]ars don’t end.’” The tricky part is “’need[ing] to know not just how to enter a battle zone but how to get out of it.’” He also learns that some battle zones don’t have boundaries, that the borders of war change, altering not just topography and geography but emotional and personal perimeters.
Maps of another kind enter Nathaniel’s life as he attempts to climb out of the “ravine of childhood.” He realizes that “[w]e order our lives with such barely held stories. As if we have been lost for generations in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken.”
Warlight is constantly surprising and thoroughly satisfying. It is a rich story with intriguing characters whose personal secrets resonate more broadly -- as a lesson in the prolonged, haunting repercussions of war.
Robert Allen Papinchak, a former university English professor, has reviewed fiction in newspapers, magazines, and journals including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the Los Angeles Book Review, the New York Journal of Books, the Strand Magazine, Mystery Scene, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.