Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is a stunning tale about loss and displacement set in the mysterious world of espionage.
It opens in 1945 when 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel discover their parents are off to Singapore, supposedly in connection with their father’s job. They are left in the care of a strange man called The Moth and an odd assortment of his friends who drift in and out of the house in Ruvigny Gardens in London. The purpose of their visits and their connection to the absent parents only becomes clear in the second half of the book.
Chief among the visitors is The Darter, a former boxer turned con artist, who ropes Nathaniel into his illegal nighttime expeditions through the streets and waterways of post-war London. Together they collect illegally imported greyhounds and smuggle them to racing tracks around the capital.
The first half of the novel is essentially about Nathaniel’s education in life, when “cut loose by my parents, I was consuming everything around me.” Through the Moth’s connections he begins working as a dishwasher at the Criterion hotel, mingling with the mainly immigrant staff, and bunking off school. And he has his first sexual experience with a girl who calls herself Agnes (we never learn her real name), in empty houses that have escaped bomb damage and are now up for sale.
Part two of Warlight sees Nathaniel, now aged 28, and working in a department of an unnamed branch of British Intelligence. Though he is narrating his strange adolescence we come to realise that this book is not about him, but about his now-dead mother Rose and his attempts to piece together her life. In particular he wants to discover what happened during the final year of the war when he was left in the care of The Moth.
In furtive forays through the basement archives of his employer, he traces his mother’s double life as a spy whose radio transmissions were monitored closely by the Nazis. But though he can piece together fragments of her life, including her narrow escape from capture, she remains an enigma. Equally puzzling is his mother’s relationship with another agent, whom she first met when she was a child and he was the boy who fell from the roof of her parents’ house while working as a thatcher.
But as Nathaniel reflects towards the end of the book that all he has done is to “step into fragments of their story”.
We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time.
Although much in this novel is murky, one thing is clear: the qualities I loved in Ondaatje’s earlier novel The English Patient are in abundance in Warlight. In particular his ability to convey character and atmosphere through sharply perceived images: Nathaniel’s night time trips through the waterways of the darkened city, his assignations with Agnes in grand mansions as greyhounds romp around the empty rooms. They are scenes that will longer long in my memory.
There is a poignancy too in this novel. Nathaniel never sees his father again; his role in the whole escape to Singapore remains unclear, he cannot even find a photograph of the man. Though he does re-unite with his mother who has hidden herself in a cottage in “a distant village, a walled garden”, the relationship between them is taut and uncomfortable. The boy’s desire to find that bond is palpable but Rose is too much on her guard to be at peace with her son, fearing that one day, she will be discovered by those who believe her actions during the war were dishonourable.
Warlight is a thoughtful book. Ondatjee doesn’t focus only on the human dimension of relationships but about the morality of actions committed during war. Rose and her fellow agents were acting in the name of piece but they were still responsible for many deaths It’s a point that Nathaniel reflects upon:
In this post-war world, twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bowed over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position.
Warlight is such an outstanding novel that I am completely perplexed how it didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2018.
What are you currently reading?
During a recent bout of “squaring away” (otherwise known as a “tidy up”) I found my copy of Winifred Holtby’s best known novel: South Riding. It’s set in the world of her upbringing in Yorkshire in which she creates a fictional rural community struggling with the effects of the depression.
Into this community steps a new headmistress with a vision of making changes and putting her school on the map. She needs to win over some of the most powerful local figures including a gentleman farmer whose world is falling apart, Mrs Beddows, the first alderman of the district and Councillor Snaith, a cunning and manipulative fellow member of the council.
So far this is proving to be a marvellous and engrossing tale.
What did you recently finish reading?
The only 2018 Booker contender I managed to read this year was The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. The title comes from the name of a strip joint where Romy Hall, a young single mother once worked. Now she is in a women’s correctional facility in California, serving two life sentences for murder. The novel, written in an unforgettable, direct voice, is an unflinching indictment of the prison system. It’s not a book that you can really say you ‘enjoy’.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Usually I find this a difficult question to answer because I don’t like planning ahead. But on this occasion, it couldn’t been easier. As soon as I heard about Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Warlight, I put in my reservation at the library. It’s just become available but such is the interest from other readers, there’s no chance of renewing the loan. So my default this is my next read though I can honestly say I’m being pushed into this choice.
This week’s Bookends brings you photos of libraries to drool over novel, a novel and – for those who love lists – 100 books Americans consider ‘great reads.’
Book: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
I’ve enjoyed Ondaatje’s work in the past – The English Patient is in fact one of my three favourite Booker Prize winners His new novel Warlight was described by Publishers Weekly as ” a haunting, brilliant novel… Mesmerizing from the first sentence …. may be Ondaatje’s best work yet.”
Warlight is set in the decade after World War II and is the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945 they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. Fourteen years later Nathaniel begins to uncover what he didn’t know and didn’t understand about that time in his childhood.
This is one that is definitely going to get my attention later this year.
Article: What do Americans consider a good read?
Discussions about reading don’t often make an appearance on mainstream television channels which makes a new 8-part series about to air on PBS in America even more noteworthy. It’s designed to get people thinking and talking about reading by asking them about books that are special to them. A list of 100 has been compiled so far – click here to view this. Signature – an online newsletter from Penguin has highlighted a few that they believe are particularly important in the context of diversity. Take a look at their selections here
Blog Post: Public Libraries Around the World
As a staunch advocate of the public library ethos, any article about such places is sure to get my interest. On the LitHub site, Emily Temple posted a list of the 12 most popular libraries in the world. No surprises about which were included since in the main they were the national libraries in capital cities. What got my heart racing were the photos more than the stats.
I look at these places and drool. And I compare them with the building that is in the capital city of my own country, Wales.
It was opened in 2009 to much applause about its architectural and environmental credentials which include a sedum roof. The coloured glass facade does look attractive but the interior is nothing special. And sadly, after only 9 years its function as a library is being diminished. One floor is closed and half of another is given over to a drop in centre for council services. How long before all of it goes????
Another 1st of the month today and once again I forgot to mark the occasion with the traditional saying “pinch, punch, first of the month”. This custom seems centuries old, coming from a time when there was a strong belief in the existence of witches. It was thought that salt would make a witch weak, so the pinch part is pinching of the salt, and the punch part was to banish the witch. The witch would be weak from the salt so the punch was to banish her.
I have my own little tradition to mark today however which is to capture what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I’ve been riding the Booker Prize wave recently. Last week I finished The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch which was so much more enjoyable than I ever expected. Now I’m half way through The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje which was the joint winner of the prize in 1992 (only the second time in the history of the prize that it was split between two novels.) Set in 1945, it features four damaged people who take refuge in a damaged villa north of Florence as Europe emerges from the war. In an upstairs room lies a horrifically burned man. His name is unknown but his memory is intact and it takes him back to the North African desert and the woman he loved. Every page of this novel is a delightful experience of witnessing a masterful writer at his best. One to savour slowly….
My journey to work has been in the company of a couple of trembling, over excited women over the past few weeks. Throw in a ruined mansion, an overbearing servant, a blind man and the result is a sensation novel which turns on a secret involving illegitimacy. Dead Secret was the fourth published novel from the pen of Wilkie Collins. It’s the novel that immediately preceded his acclaimed Woman in White and what a difference between the two works. Where Woman in White is meticulously constructed and has some memorable characters (including the magnificent Count Fosco), Dead Secret is considerably over-written and the secret is very obvious to readers even if the characters themselves are not quick on the uptake. The only enjoyable aspects are the characters of the vicar’s friend (a man so feeble a slight breeze gives him palpitations) and a villainous male servant.
The energetic figure of Simon Scharma is bouncing across the screen in the BookerTalk household as we re-visit his superb series A History of Britain. Schama wrote and presented the episodes himself. His jocular style and very mobile facial expressions don’t appeal to everyone but I enjoy his story-telling, thematic approach. Much more engaging than dusty professors in tweed jackets that used to front BBC programs in decades past or the celeb presenters who turn up frequently now (reading everything to camera since they have no clue about the subject personally).
As we’re only a few weeks away from the end of the year, the blogosphere seems to have been very active with ‘favourite books of 2012’ articles. On my blog this week I featured two of these lists – I found them both interesting more from a perspective of what they didn’t include than what was selected.
This has been an eventful bookish week personally. After months of inquiries that just sent me down further dead ends. I finally tracked down a book club relatively close to where I live. There are many clubs around but they don’t advertise themselves – members join via word of mouth it seems. Our library service wanted to help but since most of the clubs are held in people’s homes, they couldn’t disclose personal phone numbers. Very frustrating. Eventually I found one based at a small independent bookshop called Nickleby’s (which has the added advantage of course that I can browse and buy at the same time).
My first experience was on Wednesday. It was an venture into the unknown for me – I had no clue what to expect; a highly erudite discussion or a ‘Janet and John’ level of chat. It was just at the right level thanks to good preparation by the peson The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. You can see my review here. It’s fair to say this had mixed reviews – generally most people agreed it was a book of two halves but we didn’t come to an agreement on which half was the best. I got ‘persuaded’ to nominate the March read but it wasn’t easy coming up with something on the spur of the moment. In the end we settled for Posession by A. S. Byatt (selfishly, I chose it because its on my Man Booker prize reading list) ….
And in other news……
Have finally made a start on my backlog of reviews. I want to get these finished before year end and before the memory fades too much to write anything meaningful. First up was Bring Up the Bodies which won the Man Booker prize for Hilary Mantel this year which I’d read in August when it was on the long list. It’s as good, if not better than her earlier one about Cromwell (Wolf Hall).