Warlight by Michael Ondaatje — in search of the truth
Warlight, is a superbly atmospheric 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.
Education in life
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.
In the footsteps of a spy
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 Michael 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 linger 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.
Questions of morality
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 was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018 but didn’t make the shortlist which was a surprise. I thought it was a far superior book, more thoughtful and more lyrical than The Mars Room which did make the shortlist. Once again I find myself at odds with the Booker judges.
This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2019. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.
35 thoughts on “Warlight by Michael Ondaatje — in search of the truth”
Ondaatje is one of those authors that I could not decide if I like or not; he is too intense; his writing is lengthy-descriptive; too much so. Remember when writers used to be paid for the number of words or such; when reading him, it is like that.
Oh dear, you really didn’t relate to him did you? He can be intense but I haven’t found him to be an unnecessarily wordy writer – nothing like Anthony Trollope who I am reading right now.
Ondaatje is my favorite writer, so obviously, I loved this novel. Mind you, my favorites are still The English Patient and The Cat’s Table, but they’re all amazing.
I enjoyed Cat’s Table though nowhere near as English Patient. I’d put Warlight at number 2 in my ranking so far. Have yet to read In The Skin of a Lion which is meant to be one of his best and has a connection to “Patient” I believe
The Skin of the Lion is marvelous, very poetic, about the building of Toronto. I actually own two copies by accident, and I reviewed it on my blog.
I hadn’t realised it had a Toronto connection. Reading it might make me nostalgic for the one trip I made to that city
A lovely review – a book that I also really enjoyed. Those trips with The Darter are pretty unforgettable as is Rose’s story.
The atmosphere of those trips on the Thames were superb. It was lightly done yet had such power
You’ve sold this to me. I’ve been reading some more factual books about spying recently (by Ben MacIntyre) and this sounds a perfect foil to those, as yes, many many years ago, I enjoyed The English Patient, and haven’t read any of Ondaatje’s work since.
It’s quite an enigmatic novel in the final sections and I’m still not convinced I fully understood the story of his mother. But nevertheless well worth a read
I started it yesterday, so let’s see …
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Yay: I was hoping you would enjoy this one as much as I did (we don’t always share the same taste when it comes to non-linear storytelling)!
My thoughts are here, if you’re curious, as you likely avoided it back then, knowing you’d be reading it yourself later on.
You’re exactly right, I tried to avoid reading other people’s reactions so that my own views were not influenced
This does sound very intriguing, particularly given the espionage element. Good to hear that it shares some of the qualities of The English Patient – that’s very reassuring to know.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I did
I heard Ondaatje read from this at the Dalkey Book Festival last year and it sounded stunning!
Oh that would have been such a treat….
I finished this one last night. Still sorting out my impressions. “Murky” is a good description. I liked Part One better than Part Two.
So did I Judy. A few times in part 2 I had to stop reading and rewind to clarify what I was reading
I wasn’t sure about getting this one… Did not quite enjoy the previous one. Thanks for this review, makes it sound like I would like it (big fan of The English Patient).
Hope you do enjoy this if you get around to reading it.
I have this on the tbr list, but at the moment I have too many reading commitments to know when I shall get round to it. Over Easter perhaps.
Skimmed your review, as I have this tbr. Really looking forward to it. I’m glad to see you say there are qualities about it similar to the English Patient, because I also loved that.
It’s similar in that the story is pieced together in fragments
Nice review! Is this a dark book?
Not really. I thought it was sad the boy never really had the relationship with his mother but the first part when he was a young lad wasn’t dark at all
I just started this, so I’m glad to see your glowing review. I’m looking forward to it.
Great review, Claire!
Wow, great review, I seem to recall mixed opinions about this one, but I’m tempted based on yours!
I hadn’t noticed mixed opinions, most of the reviews I saw were very positive. I think one reviewer said it was Ondaatje at the height of his art
I’ve got this on my pile – going to bump it up the list after reading your fab review.
I;m sure you won’t be disappointed by it
I like books with spies and tales from the war perios suit me too, so I think this will go on my TBR list.
It’s not until you get to part 2 that you realise there is a spy connection.Until then I was puzzled why these two adults would just abandon their children….