Author: Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 285 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction, Bildungsroman
It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are seemingly abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure they call The Moth. They suspect he may be a criminal and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate, Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And how should the siblings feel when their mother returns without their father after months of silence, explaining nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand during that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel.
When I included Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight in My 2018 Most Anticipated Books, I barely had any iota on what the book was about. However, the overwhelming response to the book has enticed me to give the book a try. I haven’t even read any of Ondaatje’s works although I knew that he wrote the Man Booker Prize-winning work, The English Patient. I eventually bought The English Patient during the Big Bad Wolf PH and when I came across Warlight in a bookstore, I purchased it. However, it wasn’t until later in the year that I managed to buy time to read both books.
In Warlight, siblings Nathaniel and Rachel were unexpectedly left by their parents to the care of a stranger they have never met before. Forced to cope with the absence of their parents, they have to submit themselves to the mysterious figure they referred to as The Moth. Eventually they got used to his presence and his motley crew of friends. Just when everything became normal, their mother returns, sans her husband. How will her unexpected return impact the life of her children?
“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 rewitnessing.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, Warlight
Warlight mirrors several elements as the Man Booker Prize-winning work of Ondaatje. The most glaring parity between the two novels are their depiction of the Second World War. In Warlight, the narrative is an intricate and detailed recount of the period it was set in. Ondaatje’s narrative soared in this facet and fascinated the readers with his vivid descriptions of the war and its impact. At the fore of the story is the consequences of war and its impact on various aspects of the society, especially the family.
What the novel strives to portray (and definitely win at) is the tumult that was brought about by the war. On the surface, there are many elements of the novel that sounds absurd, bordering on implausible even. I mean, who would entrust their children to people they barely know? But that is the beauty of it all. It reminds readers the first thing about wars: they are, most certainly, capricious and messy. It can set everything flailing into all directions in total disarray.
One aspect that the novel extensively plays on is memory. When Nathaniel became an adult, he tried connecting all the pieces together in an effort to understand what happened between the years they were abandoned and the time their mother reappeared. His obsession with the past kept him digging and digging. In his earnest desire to learn about his mother, he made the past resurface in the present. Nathaniel is not only reconstructing the past, he practically is living in the past as he cannot seem to move on from what happened to his family.
“She must have perceived how one could darken and make invisible or at least distant what is unhappy or dangerous in a life; I think her eventual skill with limelight and fictional thunder allowed her to clarify for herself what was true and what was false, safe and unsafe.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, Warlight
Paradoxically, in spite of his dive into the past, Nathaniel’s character barely evolved He dug very deep into the past, basically living in it, but it is an abysmal realization that the new knowledge he obtained about the past barely changed him. He carried the story with so much angst at the start and one would expect that he would outgrow this as the story moves forward. That was not the case; he remained passive. The lack of growth in the primary character’s part made me doubt the true intentions of the novel.
Majority of the narrative was built around hints and revelations. There were some parts of the novel that were related through insinuations, something that I am not really a fan of; there is one too many. Ondaatje’s approach with Warlight is similar to the way he approached The English Patient: abrupt and disruptive storytelling complimented with powerful and vivid descriptions. If I were to be honest, it was through reading Warlight that I was able to appreciate the latter. Whereas the approach worked in The English Patient’s case, it worked otherwise in Warlight’s case.
In the heaps of negative, one can still salvage some positives. One of the novel’s redeeming qualities is the tenderness of emotions between Nathaniel and Rachel, especially in the times when Rachel’s epilepsy strikes. Symbolically, the novel is an allusion to the darkness that enveloped the small towns and cities as a result of the war. In a way, it pertains to the gaps in one’s memory due to events that the mind is still incapable of processing or understanding. Oh yes, “memory” does have the power to possess us and impact our actions.
“Those maps always oppressive with faith, as if the only purpose in life was to journey from one church altar to another rather than cross the meticulous blue of a river to reach a distant friend.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, Warlight
Overall, Ondaatje’s latest work just didn’t impress me as I wanted it to. It did well in depicting the evils and impacts of the Second World War, and his story telling was impeccable. However, there were just too many elements in the novel that went askew. The randomness of the writing barely served the novel’s purpose as it made it more confusing. Moreover, the plot was a little messy and the premise of the story was a tad too unbelievable.
The novel is an exploration of memory, a mix of poignancy and surface tension that is meant to drum up emotions. Too bad that on the most part it failed to arouse these emotions in me. On a good day, it is a moving story of a man’s search for the love of parents but it feels overdone; the mixture of nostalgia and melodrama did not work. Or perhaps I’ve had one war fiction too many. After deep reflection, I am downgrading the book from four to three stars.
Recommended for readers who like in depth reading, readers who want complex stories, readers who like reading stories related to the war, readers who like awkward plots and readers who like intricately detailed narratives.
Not recommended for readers who dislike incoherent storytelling, and readers who dislike characters who remain stagnant, and overly complicated plots.
About the Author
To learn more about Michael Ondaatje, please click here.
“If you grow up with uncertainty, you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on an hourly basis. You do not concern yourself with what you must or should remember about them. You are on your own.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, Warlight