You come away from Michael Ondaatje’s novel Warlight altered. Closing the cover on the final pages feels somewhat like a betrayal or a bereavement. You do not want to leave, still curious to understand, wanting more. Warlight opens in 1945 with a London family. Rachel and Nathaniel, affectionately referred to by their mother as Wren and Stitch, are to be left at home with a mysterious boarder, whom they name The Moth, while their parents move to Singapore, ostensibly for their father’s career. Little do they know that this will be the last time they see their father and it will be years until Rose, their mother, enters their lives again. Not long into the story, Rachel finds Rose’s trunk, which she had packed with fanfare and care, in the basement, and here the betrayal begins. Where is their mother, and why has she abandoned them? Sent to boarding schools, both youths run away and, intriguingly, The Moth convinces the schools that they will both be day pupils, and creates the setting for an unconventional household. While most days pass without mishap, some evenings bring a cast of unusual and lively characters into the children’s world. For Nathaniel, a keen and quiet observer, his life becomes filled with adventures and contact with those on the fringes of society. The Moth, on realising that he is hardly attending school, gets him a job at the Criterion, where he meets immigrant workers and gains an education of a different sort. His most intimate connection, though, is with an ex-boxer known as The Darter, who takes him (and later also, his girlfriend Agnes) on travels along the Thames, dealing illegal greyhounds and other contraband. The first half of the book focuses on these teen years: Nathaniel’s exploration of his world, a London underworld, and his lack of awareness of what is happening in the shadows. When the monsters come out of the shadows so does Rose, but the explanations remain in the dark. Later, a decade on, we meet Nathaniel in his late twenties working in the Archives of the Foreign Office, covering the tracks and eliminating information from those post-war years, the years when Rose worked as a spy, passing information to a network of allies working undercover in Europe. It is the second part of this novel that the unease and tension that permeates Nathaniel’s life comes to the fore. Rose, having cut her ties with the agency, lives an anonymous existence in Suffolk, waiting for the stranger that she believes will come for her. Although she has contact with her son (Rachel has cast her out completely), she is guarded. Any questions are met with limited information or no responses: she keeps her cards close to her chest, never revealing her past life or the role that the various ‘guardians’ had. Through Nathaniel’s musings we are given a version of Rose’s life: what may have happened to leave her with scars running down her forearms, where she may have been in those disappeared years, and who she may have loved. It is the ‘story’ of his mother, a melded memory of his childhood, the shadowy characters who came in and out of his life, fragments of poetry, drawings and interpretations of recorded interviews and mission accounts, that he pores through to create a picture. Ondaatje leaves us with lives damaged and relationships torn asunder not by bombs but by the battles of secrecy, lies and oblique conversations. Tender and achingly beautiful, Warlight takes you into its pages and transports you to another place and time.
Michael Ondaatje is the author of several novels, as well as a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. Among his many Canadian and international recognitions, his novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize, and was adapted into a multi-award winning Oscar movie; and Anil's Ghost won the Giller Prize, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Prix MUdicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto.