Nothing is as it seems in this new World War II novel.

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Set in the waning days of World War II, Michael Ondaatje’s seventh novel, Warlight, concerns two British children whose parents abandon them. At least, that is how it seems at first. But nothing is as it seems in this compelling story. The title, referring to the dimmed lights of London during its wartime blackouts, suggests the story’s ambiance as well as its many hidden realities. As one character observes: “Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the important thing.”

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Warlightby Michael Ondaatje

Knopf. 304p $26.95

Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning The English Patient mines similar territory. Both novels fuse the real and the invented. Both are atmospheric and poetic. In both the plot involves secret intelligence, smoldering battles and forged papers, as well as murder, mystery, love and adultery. But unlike the 1992 book, Warlight focuses on children, as Ondaatje did in his 2012 novel, The Cat’s Table.

Setting, action and characters progress in a world that blends elements of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold with Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon and even Maurice Sendak’s children’s picture book In the Night Kitchen. Besides the nightmarish quality shared by all four books, there is a shadowy side to the people involved. Many characters in Warlight have peculiar and intriguing pseudonyms that add to the mystery. Nathaniel Williams, who narrates the story, says, “Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises.”

Nothing is as it seems in Michael Ondaatje's compelling new novel, Warlight.

Nathaniel, a.k.a. Stitch, is 14 in 1945 and will be 29 when the story ends. He and his 16-year-old sister, Rachel, a.k.a. Wren, are living in London when they learn their father has received a promotion and will be transferred to Singapore. Their mother, Rose, will follow him shortly thereafter. Nathaniel does not ask whether he and Rachel can accompany their parents. He just comments that the idea isn’t discussed, which draws the reader’s attention and illustrates one of Ondaatje’s techniques for generating suspense: Bring up the subject, drop it, bring it up later with a different twist, continue the pattern until the concluding pages suggest a resolution. As it turns out, there are reasons for leaving the children behind, yet since this is a mystery story, those reasons cannot be revealed without giving away the plot.

In the meantime, the children are cared for by eccentric strangers who seem kindly but have a criminal bent. Their given names are not revealed until later, so they are called by their pseudonyms: The Moth and The Pimlico Darter. Both men act fatherly toward Nathaniel and Rachel.

Nathaniel spends the next 10 years trying to learn what happened to his parents. But the process is difficult. As he puts it: “No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are.” When, in his 20s, he researches national archives, he stumbles on facts concerning his mother and her childhood friend with the unusual name of Felon Marsh, who worked as a spy during the war. Riding home on the train, Nathaniel daydreams those facts into a story that he blends with the “actual” narrative he is living and telling. The method, similar to one found in Ondaatje’s 1982 memoir, Running in the Family, is somewhat confusing initially.

Nathaniel compares his actions to researching a memoir, which adds to the narrative’s credibility. As Nathaniel sees it, Felon Marsh and his mother fell in love, although he is not sure whether anything ever came of it. He does have a fleeting thought that Felon may actually be his father. All of this leads him to wonder about truth and how it evolves: “By gathering together such unconfirmed fragments? Not only of my mother, but of Agnes, Rachel.... Will all of them who have remained incomplete and lost to me become clear and evident as I look back?”

Nathaniel also has adventures with The Moth and The Darter via a boat that travels the waterways by warlight. Once, when The Darter takes Nathaniel with him to pick up some greyhounds, the boy notices the poetry in place names, like “Lower Hope Reach” and “Tilbury Cut,” and recites them to himself, suggesting the poetry Ondaatje seeds into his writing.

At one point, Nathaniel meets and falls in love with Agnes Street, a teenage waitress and “woman of the street” with questionable morals but a good heart. Soon the two are romping naked in empty houses that are to be sold—making sure to clean up afterward, since the woman’s brother is a real estate agent.

Then she disappears. This isn’t surprising, since most everyone in Warlight tends to disappear—and to reappear later. The one exception is Nathaniel’s father, who leaves the storyline when he travels to Singapore. Readers learn the father was damaged by the war but little else. In one instance, Nathaniel compares himself to Telemachus (son of Odysseus). In another instance, Nathaniel hears a tape and thinks he might be hearing his father’s voice—all to no avail. Since Nathaniel spends about 300 pages deciphering events in his mother’s life, it is disappointing that he seems to let go of his father’s story. (Interestingly, Ondaatje’s parents divorced when he was a boy, and he was not able to connect with his father after the marriage ended.)

Nathaniel does, however, eventually reconnect with Agnes, who is married to someone Nathaniel knew well and has a child, Pearl, who seems to be Nathaniel’s daughter. An allusion to Matthew’s parable about the pearl of great price, the name exemplifies Ondaatje’s penchant for puns and pseudonyms and subtly intimates the book’s path.

One of Ondaatje’s techniques for generating suspense is to bring up a subject, drop it, bring it up later with a different twist, then continue the pattern until the concluding pages suggest a resolution.

Several other religious references come up in passing. Nathaniel mentions abbeys, church bells, types of prayer and places where miracles occur. One allusion, though, is particularly memorable. It occurs as Nathaniel reads an inscription from William Blake on his mother’s tombstone: “I have travel’d thro’ Perils & Darkness not unlike a Champion.”

In Blake’s autobiography, he continues with “I still, and shall to eternity embrace Christianity, and adore Him who is the express image of God.”) These references, which seem to point to his mother, Viola, and her no-nonsense brand of Christianity, also allude to the dangers of wartime London as found in the title.

Ondaatje’s descriptions can be luminous:

This had continued even during the Blitz, when there was just warlight, the river dark save for one dimmed orange light on the bridges to mark the working arch for water traffic, a quiet signal in the midst of the bombing, and the barges ablaze, and shrapnel frapping across the water, while on the blackened roads the secret lorries crossed the city three or four times a night.

Ondaatje’s frequent use of figurative language and the characters’ philosophical observations both slow down and enrich the story, as does his poetic style. An award-winning poet, Ondaatje burnishes his words until they shine. Although his writing techniques can make for heavy-duty reading, they also add heft (and pleasure) as the storyline zigzags its hypnotic way from present to past and back again.

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