Warlight

Warlight

In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named Th...

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Title:Warlight
Author:Michael Ondaatje
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Warlight Reviews

  • Violet wells

    A master craftsman at the height of his powers. I could have gone on reading this until kingdom come. If I had to compare Ondaajte's novels with a city it would be Venice. Venice which so eloquently visualises the poetic ordering demands of memory and the exalting aspirations of identity. Venice which is washed through with the simultaneously life affirming and melancholy tang of tidal salt water.

    Warlight is a novel about the secret underlife of identity and about how we seek to construct memor

    A master craftsman at the height of his powers. I could have gone on reading this until kingdom come. If I had to compare Ondaajte's novels with a city it would be Venice. Venice which so eloquently visualises the poetic ordering demands of memory and the exalting aspirations of identity. Venice which is washed through with the simultaneously life affirming and melancholy tang of tidal salt water.

    Warlight is a novel about the secret underlife of identity and about how we seek to construct memory in a narrative form to sustain a structure of order. Perhaps the most mysterious people in our lives are our own parents. Behind the domestic façade how much is hidden from us. Our parents perhaps more than anyone make us realise how much is censored and even left out in talk. When interrogated they stick to their cover stories, like the best undercover agent. They have a secret life of which we generally have little inkling. Thus if you're going to write a novel about a son seeking to piece together his mother's life after her death it's a simple stroke of genius to make her a secret agent. All our parents are secret agents. They exert as much energy in hiding themselves from us as making themselves known.

    All the light in this novel is clandestine, evanescent, stolen or tricked from a felt pervading darkness. Narratively it follows the principles of memory. The bigger picture is always elusive; isolated detail as if picked out by torchlight has to be padded out to provide a storyline. As the author says at the end, "We order our lives with barely held stories."

    As you'd expect with Onjaadte, Warlight is beautiful, poetic, romantic, fabulously constructed but, more surprisingly, it's also very exciting. The son, abandoned by his parents for the duration of the war, never quite knows the true nature of the roles played by the guardians of his adolescence nor is ever told where his mother and father are. All these guardians are exceptionally gifted and enigmatic people (you might say Onjaadte doesn't do ordinary people). Everyone has a secret life utterly unknown to our narrator the puzzles of which he will seek to piece together retrospectively as an adult. It's a novel with a big wise heart that makes you love life. Memorable images abound, like the nighttime river journeys, the midnight scalings of Cambridge's spired buildings, the lovemaking in empty apartments. The best novel I've read this year by a long shot and for me the most exciting book of the decade so far.

  • Katie

    I wish I hadn't read this

    Because then I'd still have it to read

    Just stunning.

  • Will Byrnes

    When we are young we rely on the people who surround us to introduce us to the world, to explain the many elements of life that can be so confusing, overwhelming, or simply opaque to young eyes. Some of this knowledge can only come from first-hand experience, but it helps to have adults at hand, of a trustworthy sort, who can help us along the road of becoming. Nathaniel (aka Stitch) is fourteen. His

    When we are young we rely on the people who surround us to introduce us to the world, to explain the many elements of life that can be so confusing, overwhelming, or simply opaque to young eyes. Some of this knowledge can only come from first-hand experience, but it helps to have adults at hand, of a trustworthy sort, who can help us along the road of becoming. Nathaniel (aka Stitch) is fourteen. His sister, Rachel, (aka Wren) is sixteen when their parents depart for Singapore on mysterious government assignments after the war, leaving them in the care of the boarder they call “The Moth,” and a fluid cast of what can only be considered

    , reminiscent of Caravaggio from

    , who was both a criminal and a spy.

    Questionable they may be, at first glance anyway, but they are a remarkably colorful lot. One of my favorites was one Norman Marshall, aka

    , aka

    , a fellow with a taste for cheating at dog-race betting and transporting materials uncertain, nicely hidden in boxes, from one place to another under cover of night. All very hush-hush, and possibly criminal. There are plenty of other lively supporting characters who stroll, dash, or creep across the pages.

    It is among these remarkable personalities that Nat and Rachel are introduced to the realities of a world that exists largely in shadows, the dim light redolent of wartime London, or

    of the title. The first part of the story, Nat and Rachel’s adolescence, takes place in the immediate post-war period. The curtain between war and post-war being sometimes permeable, they are affected by events of a continuing shadow engagement, in which war-time battle driven by armored divisions, fleets of ships, and waves of aircraft was replaced by the dimly-lit conflict of combatants in street clothes, engaged in theatres where stealth and treachery defined the landscape.

    The focus is primarily on Nathaniel, with Rachel relegated to activities that are mostly reported rather seen first-hand. There is a strong element of coming of age here for Nat, whose experiences in the world of work, whether legal or not, and adventures with the opposite sex expose him to a broader vision of the world. With both parents away, he must look to the adults at hand for role models. It would help if he actually knew what they were really were on about.

    - image from his FB pages

    Further on, we meet him in his late twenties, in a surprising profession, focused on learning the full truth of his mother’s involvement in the war, and with related tasks after.

    Nat’s search for the truth of his mother, Rose’s, life is, in a way, a stand-in for seeking the truth of his own. Telemachus wanting to learn of his mother’s odyssey. While the primary focus of the book is on Nathaniel, Rose comes in for the next-most attention. Her history is fascinating, and a delight to read.

    There are many echoes here of the author’s prior work. (I have read several, but not all of his earlier six novels) As he has done before, Ondaatje takes us into war from a place of later reflection through older, wiser eyes, which may remind readers of Anil recalling ethnic slaughter in Sri Lanka in

    , or the many war scenes in

    .

    In our look-back, Rose and others engage in mortally perilous missions. Some do battle on the homefront as well, although no less dangerously. Scarring is another feature Ondaatje returns to.

    was surely a high point in the literature of skin miseries. But the experience that scarring suggests shows up here as well. An immigrant with whom Nat works as a teen sports noticeable facial scarring. A co-worker of his mother has less than beautiful hands from his scaling interest. Another has abdominal marks that were clearly nearly mortal and Rose has a decent dose of skin-told-tales as well.

    He also sustains the motif of almost-darkness in looking back at this time, as well as in the characters’ initial experience of it.

    The darkness extends to identification as well, given how many of the characters are known by their colorful

    rather than by what might appear on their birth certificates.

    There are bits of payload you will appreciate here, information about the real world that appears in the story, some information on greyhounds and dog-racing, and covert programs to cope with domestic security risks. You will get a feel for life in London during the aftermath of war, and also in

    , an area of England new to me. You will pick up a bit on the range of bird whistle signals that might be used by a secretive Thames-borne barge, and most surprisingly learn a bit about

    . (you have to click, at least, to learn that one.) Ondaatje mentions a program of post-war mopping up, called

    . I do not know if it refers to something real or imagined. My googling yielded nothing informative, but it does seem like the sort of thing that

    have existed. An abbey that is put to another purpose is a fun-fact. An interesting element is the acquisition of skills that might not be so readily acquired during peacetime. A bee-keeper, for example, has a

    . A veterinarian is a skilled lock-picker.

    Ondaatje plants seeds early in the tale that grow to mighty oaks by the end. There is a large twist, serving to remind how what has happened can define what is and direct what can be.

    As in most good novels, there are Easter-egg clues to the novelist’s craft.

    This nicely reflects the author’s on-high ability to see past windows into the secrets of his/her characters’ lives. And another nugget.

    And just in case you were not aware, Ondaatje’s writing is poetical, exquisite, and moving. There are many passages in

    that call you to return, mull, and savor. A writer who is not fond of linear narrative, he jumps about without much warning, but attentive readers should have little difficulty knowing

    they are in the narrative. While considerable attention is paid to the business of international intrigue, that seems more to provide a palette against which the characters can be displayed.

    may be about the dim light of history, secrecy, mystery, and uncertainty, but it glows with the luminescence of a master story-teller at the peak of his power. Whether you read by the glow of a low-wattage bulb or under the blaze of the noonday sun, the sparkle will shine through. I found Nat’s story, as well as his mother’s, compelling. Nat’s yearning to cast light on his family’s secrets will lead you along, teach you a thing or two, tug on your emotions, and leave you dazzled. Ondaatje’s portrait of coming of age during dire times, and the perils and prices of desperate measures, will keep you turning pages, whatever the candle-power at your disposal. The challenge of making moral decisions under dangerous and murky conditions that is presented here should, nonetheless, leave you with a simple, unambiguous, choice.

    is such a brilliant piece of work that you might need shades.

    Review posted – May 4, 2018

    Publication – May 8, 2018

    I received the book from the publisher's First To Read program in return for an honest review. I will post the dishonest review elsewhere.

    =============================

    Michael Ondaatje on

    The Guardian - MO reading an essay he wrote while staying in Conrad’s boat in London

    June 4, 2007 – The New Yorker -

    by Louis Menand – a fascinating analysis of MO’s work -

    July 18, 2018 -

    is long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Award for Fiction

  • Jeffrey Keeten

    Nothing is safe, and no one can be trusted.

    The war is over, but not for everyone. Those who had been working in the shadows during WW2 are now being asked to transition to a new war that would eventually be referred to as

    Some, like Rachel and Nathaniel’s mother and father, want to walk away from their clandestine work, but with the powerful enemies they have made, that is proving impossible. They either know too much or they have thwarted too many insidious plans.

    Of course, we can only speculate because Rose Williams does not talk about her life during the war. To her children, her life is an enigma that can only be unraveled with truth serum. She is not an ideal mother. She is distant when they want her to be warm. She gives cryptic advice when they need her reassurances.

    Rose admits:

    which is still an obscuring statement, but about as close to a personal admission as Nathaniel will ever get from her.

    Rachel has just turned 16, and Nathaniel is 14. They are left in the hands of a man they call The Moth and another more dynamic personality called The Darter. The family makes a habit of assigning people nicknames; Rachel is Wren, and Nathaniel is Stitch. We can call them nicknames, but knowing the background of their parents, we can’t help but think of them as codenames. Names to call someone that won’t reveal them for who they really are.

    The Moth and The Darter are an odd pairing, but then these are unusual circumstances that require people who can protect them rather than be the surrogate parents they wish for. The interesting friends and associates, especially of Darter, who Stitch and Wren come into contact with provide a view of alternative lifestyles that are sometimes disconcerting, but whether they know it or not, those brief contacts with those people are expanding their definitions of what a normal life looks like. The contact is brief indeed. Just when they start to know someone, they disappear, never to be seen again, which each time is like losing their parents all over again.

    One woman, in particular, proves memorable, especially for Stitch. She is Olive Lawrence, an ethnographer with way too much class to be the girlfriend of a barge rat like The Darter, but there is something about him that fascinates her.

    School becomes a secondary concern for Stitch as he starts to help The Darter with his rather clandestine midnight activities. He might be ferrying greyhounds from other countries to be used in one of the numerous illegal betting tracks, or it might be something much more dangerous. Stitch is a natural at covert activities.

    Later after college, he is recruited by some branch of British Intelligence, and he uses that time and the things he learned from The Darter to “liberate” files from certain locked cabinets to learn more about his parents, especially his mom. His mother remains a nebulous creature, impossible to hold, impossible to know. He is lost in

    I’ve noticed some readers have thought this tale meanders or that the circumstances are implausible, but I must say that, for me, the meandering makes it feel more like real life (life is rarely linear), and whatever might have been thought of as implausible is actually very plausible for me. I read a lot of history, and it is rife with so many events that defy believability that I must contend that anything that anyone can think of has been done by someone somewhere. The circumstances of this novel do not come even close to stretching the imagination. I don’t even like the word implausible. It is a word of limitation that closes the mind. Nothing in my world is implausible, not even that gray area between fiction and reality.

    This was a wonderful, evocative reading experience that certainly is still haunting this reader. It reminded me that there are so many unknown heroes, not just from our wars but also from the nebulous times in between conflicts, when wars are extinguished before they start, when our secrets are kept safe, and when lives are snuffed in the shadows.

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  • Elyse

    Damn this was good!!!!

    I purposely stayed away from reviews- but now I’m dying to read what others have to say - especially since I’m ‘long-winded review-retired’ for the rest of 2018.

    From the title itself, “Warlight”, to the luring first line in the novel - “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”......I was completely captivated to the end.

    Nathaniel—is an adult writing about his life.

    In childhood, Nathaniel, 14, and Rachel 16, get entangl

    Damn this was good!!!!

    I purposely stayed away from reviews- but now I’m dying to read what others have to say - especially since I’m ‘long-winded review-retired’ for the rest of 2018.

    From the title itself, “Warlight”, to the luring first line in the novel - “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”......I was completely captivated to the end.

    Nathaniel—is an adult writing about his life.

    In childhood, Nathaniel, 14, and Rachel 16, get entangled with a slew of fascinating sinewy boisterous characters whom most seem to have nicknames. The siblings and their mother also have nicknames…very symbolic to this novel: everyone being a substitute. Smugglers and low lives replace parents.

    From Nathaniel’s childhood to his adult years he is most unsettled with his mother. Her secrets - lies - betrayal- and heroism - resulted in adverse blacklash for their family.

    The questions that troubled Nathaniel about his mother -things not fitting together- haunting & mysterious —were insightful about post war life.

    Past wars are never past. The loss, destruction, and hurt still lives.

    Michael Ondaatje is phenomenally talented. His prose is powerful and luminous.

    Extraordinary mysterious atmosphere—a few violent scenes - seductive to the end.

  • Lori

    Your parents left you with two dodgy characters while they left for a year-long trip!

    Neither our storyteller, Nathaniel (Stitch) nor his sister, Rachel (Wren) know either man very well. He slowly unravels answers. Each one reveals more questions. It’s probably better that way.

    Your parents left you with two dodgy characters while they left for a year-long trip!

    Neither our storyteller, Nathaniel (Stitch) nor his sister, Rachel (Wren) know either man very well. He slowly unravels answers. Each one reveals more questions. It’s probably better that way.

  • Tammy

    This might have been a coming of age novel but it’s not. It might have been a post WWII novel but it’s not. It might have been a family drama of sorts but it’s not. The narration is messy, the plot is pointless and the premise is unbelievable. Warlight meandered about without a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Hannah Greendale

    In

    , Ondaatje has crafted an ode to twentieth-century storytelling. A purposeless hero, a disdain for plot, and a lack of sensational revelations equate to a mind-numbing read in which nothing much happens.

    In 1945 London, fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are abandoned by their parents, left in the care of a guardian selected by their mother. By following Nathaniel in his formative years, Ondaatje presumably intends to explore the aftereffects of war, to examine

    In

    , Ondaatje has crafted an ode to twentieth-century storytelling. A purposeless hero, a disdain for plot, and a lack of sensational revelations equate to a mind-numbing read in which nothing much happens.

    In 1945 London, fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are abandoned by their parents, left in the care of a guardian selected by their mother. By following Nathaniel in his formative years, Ondaatje presumably intends to explore the aftereffects of war, to examine how a family is devastated by a pressing obligation to their country. However, Nathaniel is largely indifferent to his parents’ departure. He barely knew his father, and his mother’s absence is quickly overshadowed by the behavior of his strange-mannered guardian (nicknamed “The Moth”) and the peculiar social circle The Moth inhabits.

    ’s dust jacket proclaims this is a narrative “

    ,” but there’s nothing mysterious about this book. Who Nathaniel’s parents were during the war, the seemingly questionable behavior of The Moth, and the criminal deeds of his acquaintances are either easily discernable or undisguised.

    And, yes, the narrative is justifiably nonchronological, mimicking how memory does not follow a linear path, but these glimpses into Nathaniel’s past are lusterless because he doesn’t change by the end of the book. Nathaniel lacks an arc; he faces no moral quandary, no point of growth that forces readers to question

    he started or

    he arrived at a significant moment in adulthood. Even the people who surround Nathaniel remain largely unchanged. And since everyone mostly gets along, there’s an aching lack of conflict.

    One of the redeeming qualities of

    are the tender moments shared between Nathaniel and Rachel, particularly when her epileptic fits strike. However, faint glimpses of their closeness prove inconsequential when, as adults, they opt to fend for themselves; a separateness Nathaniel reveals with nonchalance.

    Had Ondaatje opted to follow Rachel,

    might have been salvaged. She’s the only character notably affected by her mother’s absence. “

    ” Nathaniel explains, “

    ” It is Rachel who first thinks their guardian is a criminal and later becomes “

    .” Rachel whose life choices as an adult echo the instances that shattered her formative years.

    Antiplot, stagnant characters, and a lack of mystery make

    a sleepy addition to the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist.

  • Diane S ☔

    I am going to leave this unrated. At 35% I am putting this one down, unfinished. Usually enjoy this author for the wonderful way he uses words, and this book did have some of that, but the story just did not resonate with me. Maybe it's my mood, maybe I'll pick it up again sometime, but for now I'm done.

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