Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is a masterpiece of storytelling.
The novel begins in 1945 London, shortly after the end of the war when London is slowly recovering from the Blitz. Although the war may officially be over, the conflict between factions continues but assumes a different form.
Unwittingly embroiled in post-war events is 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sixteen-year-old sister, Rachel. Abandoned by their parents who have ostensibly gone to Singapore for a year, Nathaniel and Rachel are left in the hands of a guardian, a mysterious figure they call The Moth. Initially, Rachel and Nathaniel are convinced that their guardian is engaged in some sort of nefarious criminal activity. Their impressions are reinforced when The Moth’s motley crew of cohorts enter and exit periodically in their lives with little to no explanation.
The narrative unfolds from Nathaniel’s first-person point of view. He attaches himself to one of the regular visitors, The Darter, and joins him on his midnight adventures through the streets of London and on river barges as they smuggle greyhounds and transport crates, the contents of which remain a mystery. From The Darter and The Moth’s other visitors, Nathaniel picks up survival tools, takes on odd jobs in London, and has his first love affair. All this comes to a violent and bloody halt when his mother emerges from the shadows to be with her children.
We skip forward about a dozen years when, as a grown man employed by British Intelligence, Nathaniel begins to uncover his mother’s secret life. He recalls people, events, activities, and snatches of conversation that had little meaning for him during his adolescence. He unearths documents about post-war clandestine activities, interrogations, spies, and covert operations. He learns that the shady characters who befriended him as a teenager all had unique talents that were put to use by British Intelligence. And he learns of his mother’s activities under her code name, Viola.
This is a multilayered historical novel about what happened and what might have happened in post-war London. The research is impressive and encapsulates the zeitgeist of the time: the “mopping up” or destruction of sensitive documents; the transportation of explosives by river and through the dimly lit streets of London at all hours of the night; the museum and gallery collections stored in hotel basements and tunnels for safe-keeping; and shady people operating in the margins.
But it is also a novel about memory, about the fragmentary nature of memory, and about how our recollections are enveloped in a fog. As a teenager, Nathaniel snatches images and tidbits of conversations, the full import of which he doesn’t understand until years later. He grasps at hints, suggestions, innuendos. His enigmatic mother provides evasive answers to his questions and cradles her secrets to the grave. His attempt to reconnect with The Darter later in life is unsatisfactory. Like Nathaniel, we are haunted by much that is left unanswered.
Just as with memory, the novel progresses in a non-linear fashion, circling back on itself with flashbacks and flash forwards. The narrative switches from first-person point of view to limited omniscient as Nathaniel imagines events in his mother’s secret life and in the life of The Darter now with a wife and child. The diction and imagery exquisitely capture the ambiguity and indefinable quality of life in the shadows. We witness his struggle to connect shards of memory to make meaning of a historical period in which secrecy was a pre-condition for survival.
The term “Warlight” refers to the dimming of lights during wartime to evade night time bombers. In this novel, Michael Ondaatje has captured the essence of warlight—a foggy darkness peopled by barely discernible shadows, engaged in activities that remain a mystery, with Nathaniel as a participant in a game he didn’t even know he was playing.
A breathtaking masterpiece at evoking a murky, haunting atmosphere and the shadowy characters who people it. Highly recommended.