Warlight a Masterful Triumph

WARLIGHT  (2018)
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 304 pages.

In 1992, Michael Ondaatje won the Man Booker Prize for The English Patient. If there is any justice, he will win again for his doleful and astonishing Warlight.

How to explain what this book is about? I suppose we should start with the title. If you think that wars are over when they officially end, you’ve been fortunate enough never to have experienced one. Ondaatje’s novel opens in “the dimmed warlight” of 1945, just after the war against fascism has been won. That’s cold consolation to a city such as London, where war’s festering wounds and devastation lie all around. So too do secrets, old scores, and not-yet-subdued dangers. The very path to the future is bathed in a hazy half-light.   

Now ask yourself what you know of your parents’ lives before you were self-aware. Would you know about it, if when your mother was a girl, a thatcher’s lad fell through the cottage roof and couldn’t be moved for several weeks? Do you have even the faintest idea of what your father’s job entails? Of what your mother’s education was like? Of what either of them did during a war in which their children were packed off to America and Wales for safekeeping?

The narrator of Warlight is 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams. When he and his older sister Rachel are told that their parents are going away for a year—ostensibly because Unilever has sent their father off to Singapore—they fret over this less than one might think. Neither parent is what you’d call warm, and its unclear if their mother, Rose, cares at all, or if she’s just spectacularly bad at the whole motherhood thing. What is odd, though, is that the children are left in the care of a large-nosed, disheveled man named Walter, whose ideas about domesticity are even more challenged than Rose’s. Nathaniel dubs him The Moth for his furtive ways and soon forgets his actual name. And before you know it, the household is like a London Underground station through which all manner of people pass through. A few are sophisticated, but mostly they are a Dickensian array of misfits, petty criminals, and shadowy figures. The one constant is The Moth’s friend, whom Nathaniel and Rachel call The Darter because, as Walter explains, his welterweight boxing nickname was the Pimlico Darter. It also describes his propensity for dancing on the edge of malfeasance. Not exactly the company with whom you’d expect private school kids to be spending time.

Nathaniel soon begins to skip school and The Darter puts him to work—first at a restaurant, but soon joining him for late night trips down the Thames in a mussel boat to do some “delivery” work that might better be called “smuggling.” Those activities include cargoes of greyhounds for dog tracks, some legit but mostly not. But in the warlight, who’s to notice forged papers? The descriptions of London’s squalid piers and mysterious buildings are alone worth a read. What exactly took place inside a former monastery converted to a factory? How are people getting by amidst the rubble of the Blitz? It’s an exciting time for young Nathaniel, especially after he meets Agnes, who is way beneath him on the social scale, but who both introduces him to the pleasures of the flesh and is the blithe counterpoint to his brooding tendencies. 

I began to presume that Warlight was a coming of age novel. It is, but it’s so much more. I shall say only that it has much to do with the aspects of Rose’s life that an adolescent boy could not imagine, and a 17-yeard-old daughter could only partially infer. It also has to do with nurture, socialization, and early childhood. To what degree are we products of our genes versus the influence of various role models and our striving to invent ourselves? How many times can a single life shift gears? Can we ever truly overcome our essential natures? Though we have our suspicions, these will remain open questions, even when we meet Nathaniel again at age 28.

Michael Ondaatje has written more poetry than novels and it shows—in a good way. They are passages of this book that are read-aloud beautiful—sentences whose prose sparkles nearly as brightly as the provocative observations held within their content and context. I will also tell you something very important: nothing in this book is an incidental throwaway. It’s hard to know what impresses more, Ondaatje’s dreamy prose or plotting worthy of an artisan craftsman. If warlight is akin to the gloaming, this novel illumines like a hot summer sun.

Rob Weir

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