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Michael Ondaatje, arguably one of the greatest living writers today, returns to the Second World War with his riveting new novel Warlight. However, unlike his celebrated The English Patient which is set during that conflict, this time round Ondaatje moves on to its unspoken reverberations during the transition from wartime to peacetime and the onset of the Cold War. As such, Warlight provides a tight, complex interplay of memory, mystery, violence and illusion and the ambiguities of war and peace through the narrator Nathaniel, whose quest for the truth about his loving but enigmatic mother leads him to into the past.

As Nathaniel comes to realise, a seemingly peaceful post-war world is actually one of considerable difficulty and confusion. He begins with startling words: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” At the time, Nathaniel is 14 and his sister Rachel is 16. They are living in London, a city pockmarked with bombed buildings which also embody the scars of war on individual lives. Londoners, unable to return to pre-war certainties, try to adjust to post-war realities.

Nathaniel and Rachel are told that their father has been posted to Singapore by his firm, a multinational corporation; their mother will join him shortly and a guardian will look after them in the holidays. This — and the fact that they are sent to boarding schools — was the colonial norm, but as Nathaniel’s tale reveals, no such ‘normality’ exists in their family life. The children have neither an address for their parents nor receive letters from them. In the basement, Rachel discovers the very trunk and clothes that their mother had packed for Singapore. Their guardian is unable to — or refuses to — reveal her whereabouts.

A remarkable new novel from Michael Ondaatje asks important questions on the nature of war and victory, violence and illusion

Ondaatje provides a sensitive and moving portrait of Nathaniel and Rachel, both on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, as they draw on imagination and partly-understood observation to interpret their world. Their self-contained guardian, nicknamed The Moth because he is “moth-like in his shy movements” is a large man, a recent lodger on the third floor of their London home in Ruvigny Gardens. They have no idea what he does for a living, though their parents have referred to him as “a colleague.” The subtlety with which his profession is indicated, without Nathaniel and Rachel being aware of it, adds to the power of the narrative and its quiet suggestions of unspoken violence.

Nathaniel and Rachel are miserable at their respective boarding schools. They run away, back to their London home. The Moth allows them to continue living there, but ensures that they return to their schools as day scholars. This brings them into wider contact with adult post-war London life. They are particularly intrigued and astonished by the number of odd visitors who come to see the Moth at home, ranging from an opera singer, a beekeeper and a couturier, to a man they call The Darter. He is an erstwhile boxer engaged in illicit greyhound racing and smuggling. Sometimes The Moth disappears for a day or two and The Darter keeps an eye on Rachel and Nathaniel and proves adept at dealing with Rachel’s epileptic fits. Nathaniel soon develops a secret life of his own: he embarks on a love affair with a young woman named Agnes.

Through these characters and the places Nathaniel frequents with them, the novel vividly reconstructs the London of the time. This is given further context by Nathaniel’s fascination for drawing maps. Soon The Moth finds him a job over the weekends at the Criterion Hotel, to earn pocket money. There, while working in the basement, Nathaniel discovers a network of underground tunnels running across London. Later, Nathaniel travels with The Darter up and down the river, helping him smuggle greyhounds. Both experiences and a trip across a network of canals suggest an important aspect of wartime England: a clandestine world and dangerous methods and routes to transport important and vital items from one point to another without alerting the enemy.

These geographical realities and the secrets they hold also embody the emotional landscape of many seemingly ordinary people whose daily skills proved invaluable during risky wartime activities, which they cannot — and never do — mention. Nathaniel will only grasp much later how the demands of war on most individuals remained hidden, suppressed, or unspoken in peacetime.

This is accentuated further during Nathaniel’s sojourn in a peaceful, scenic and verdant Suffolk village where his mother grew up and where he ultimately buys a house for himself. This coastal area “had taken on an even greater secretiveness” during the war, for fear of a German invasion. As such, all these locations — and the sense of ‘normality’ as an illusion — are interlinked with the life of Nathaniel and Rachel’s mother as well as the aftermath of the Second World War, “when an authorised and still-violent war” continued across Europe after the armistice, against guerrilla groups, fascists, communists and others.

We were becoming aware that our mother had more skills than we thought. Had her beautiful white arms and delicate fingers shot a man dead with intent? — Excerpt from the book

Rachel and Nathaniel’s attempts to try and coax some wartime memories from The Moth meet with little success. He says evasively that he and their mother worked together as “firewatchers.” The brother and sister then catch snippets of conversations which reveal that their mother played a rather more daring wartime role and possessed more skills than they knew. This, in turn, provides a nuanced insight into the lives of highly educated women who belonged to a generation which perceived their primary role as that of wives and mothers, and for whom the war opened up new horizons and new possibilities.

Exactly where she was, what she did and why, and her continuing post-war activities in unknown lands, continue to haunt Nathianel. He joins the secret service in order to have access to archives which will help him research, reconstruct and understand his mother’s life. All of this together makes Warlight a truly remarkable novel which is filled with wonderful poetic writing and which breathes life into the past and asks important questions on the nature of war and victory.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

By Michael Ondaatje
Jonathan Cape, UK
ISBN: 978-1787330719

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 9th, 2018