Michael Ondaatje: Warlight
by Jennifer Bryce
‘Warlight’ was the dim light that helped emergency traffic navigate London’s streets during the blackouts of World War II. Most of this book seems to be dimly lit. It is on the longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize (the shortlist will be announced on 20th September).
With the book’s opening sentence, the reader is thrust into post World War II sinister murkiness: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ The two children, 14 year-old Nathaniel (the main narrator of the story) and his 16 year-old sister Rachel, understand that their parents are travelling to Singapore for a year for the father’s work. He boards a plane … and they never see him again. The mother will follow shortly – she makes a show of packing her steamer trunk.
The children are left in the care of a rather scruffy man and his associates. They nick-name their main minder ‘the Moth’ – I assumed that he must hover around, but Nathaniel says he was ‘moth-like in his shy movements’. An ex-boxer, ‘the Darter’ becomes a significant second father figure for Nathaniel, indulging in clandestine activities such as late night smugglings of racing grey-hounds down shadowy waterways in a mussel boat. Rachel is taken along on many of these activities, but she is bereft and never forgives her mother for abandoning her.
a disused Anderson Shelter, sometimes used by ‘the Darter’ to hide greyhounds
Then the children discover their mother’s steamer trunk. She didn’t take it. She didn’t go. But where is she? Some things are gradually revealed. The mother’s code name, associated with espionage, is Viola. We follow Nathaniel through his teenage life – abandoning school, falling in love, working in a restaurant, and then working for ‘the Darter’. But pulsing away beneath all of this, like the murky canals and back lanes he traverses, are questions about his mother.
There is an attempted kidnapping. A turning-point. Nathaniel is sent abroad to school. Then suddenly Nathaniel is in his late 20s and working in intelligence – mainly so that he can find out more about his mother. And suddenly there is light when we find ourselves at the mother’s country house called White Paint – there are bees, there is thatching, it is all seemingly wholesome and English. But no. The mother, the spy, is shot in her summerhouse. There is a funeral. Nathaniel sees a lone man there, with the evocative name of Marsh Felon. He loved her. More about the mother’s background is unearthed. When Nathaniel ultimately catches up with ‘the Darter’ (they were separated at the time of the attempted kidnapping) he discovers something that brings a heart-wrenching twist to the end of the story.
This book was a page-turner for me – and yet I left it slightly dissatisfied. I was an observer. I couldn’t get inside or even feel some small degree of empathy for any of the characters – not even the poor abandoned Rachel. Nathaniel (as narrator) takes us into his past, but he is armed with his adult knowledge and experience – we do not feel anything quite as the 14 year-old did. As one reviewer comments: ‘You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a re-witnessing.’ https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/05/24/michael-ondaatje-warlight-mists-of-time/
Maybe we can be no more than witnesses to that distant, dimly-lit time. In many ways, reading the book was rather like watching a movie of the 1940s – it was definitely in black and white.
There is a lot to commend in this book and it will be interesting to see what happens on 20th September.