Warlight by Michael Ondaatje


It was Tony’s review that sent me to this book, and thank you for that, Tony. It is set in London and begins in 1945 when Nathaniel, the narrator and his sister were teenagers and their parents left them “in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Nathaniel tells us the story, not always in a linear manner, from his vantage point as an adult. He brings the odd corner of London to the fore, in that very dim light of postwar time. This  reminded me of Patrick Modiano’s book After the Circus,  another book recounted by an adult who as a teenager was left to his own devices by his parents. It too is from another era (the 1960s) and is set in a beloved city (Paris). Unlike Warlight, that one is all about the unresolved mysteries.

It was expected that Nathaniel and Rachel would go to boarding school after their mother left, but they rebelled and only went to their schools during the day. One of the caretakers was dubbed The Moth by the two and he kept to himself, but asked odd questions, including requesting a floor plan of the art gallery at Nathaniel’s school. It had been explained that The Moth knew his mother from their work together during the war. A former boxer called The Pimlico Darter was the other caretaker. Other assorted characters came and went from the house to the mystification of the two teenagers.

The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer. If I attempt now to recall the activities of one or two of them what emerges are surreal non-chronological moments.

Nathaniel explains, “There are times these years later, as I write all this down, when I feel as if I do so by candlelight. As if I cannot see what is taking place in the dark beyond the movement of this pencil. These feel like moments without context.”

One of The Darter’s criminal activities was to pick up greyhound dogs in the middle of the night from a truck and transport them in his barge along the Thames or one of its tributaries to another location. Nathaniel and sometimes Rachel would be there to comfort the hidden dogs while The Darter guided the barge.

Nathaniel worked in the kitchen of a restaurant The Moth had a connection to and he makes a friend, Agnes. She takes him at night to empty houses that her realtor brother has on the market. Once when dancing with her at a nightclub, he thought he caught sight of his mother. After a year or two of this life, he and Rachel were attacked and at that time his mother reappears. He and his mother move to the countryside in Suffolk.

As an adult Nathaniel works in a government archives office and he finds secret files that explain his mother’s work during the war and afterwards. Slowly, one by one, the various characters who appeared in his youth are seen in a different light. Masterful storytelling.

Michael Ondaatje, Warlight, Knopf, 2018, 304 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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