Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
It has been 6 long years since Michael Ondaatje’s last book, The Cat’s Table, was published. A good long time, and now Warlight. Another perfect book.
The novel takes place in the years immediately following the Second World War, mostly in the city of London, England. After the depravation and horror of war, the shortages of essentials, the fear of bombings, the destruction of neigbourhoods, the post war years bring only a very gradual return to normal.
It is 1945, and siblings Nathaniel, 14, and Rachel, 16, live with their parents, in London. They are told that their parents are going to Singapore for a year, for work, and the children will be attending boarding school, a family friend will live in their home, and care for the children during school holidays. And so the story begins.
Fourteen and sixteen year-olds were considered much more capable of looking after themselves in 1945 that they are now. And certainly both Rachel and Nathaniel do not have what would now be considered suitable adult supervision. The man chosen by their mother, Rose, to care for them is a wonderful character, with a circle of fascinating and eccentric friends. One, the Darter, takes Nathaniel on the river ferrying various illegal cargoes, still much as it was during the war, as they “passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was only warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river”.
It is Nathaniel who is at the centre of this story, and it is his memories of this time, and the years before and after, that matter most. We all have memories of moments in our lives, memories that are often different than those of others who were there at the same time. It is sometimes difficult for us to know how accurate our memory is, how coloured it may be by our age and experience, how we may have misunderstood the reality of a particular time, how different it may be for each person who experienced the same event. For Nathaniel, it becomes a life long obsession.
He attempts to discover more about his parents, his research an effort to understand their behavior, to comprehend how they could have left their children. Of course, there was no Google, no Facebook, just rooms with documents and few people to answer his questions. Though Nathaniel remembers those who peopled his teenage years, they are almost lost “in that ravine of childhood”.
Both Nathaniel and Rachel are, forever, profoundly affected by these few years and what they experienced. Nathaniel and his mother so alike in preferring privacy and solitude, while Rachel attempts to put it all aside in her own way.
This is a novel full of wonderful characters, The Moth, and the Darter, and a man who, when only a boy, fell off the roof while thatching Nathaniel’s grandparents home, and who resurfaces time and again, telling Rose, “The important thing is I need to teach you to protect those you love.” It is a story of a time past, brought to life.
Sometimes it seems there are too few writers with the intelligence, sensitivity and ability to write a book that is a both a compelling story, written with language that is simply so wonderful to read – a perfect book. Warlight has is it.