‘We order our lives with barely held stories,’ says the narrator of Warlight. This astonishing new book from Michael Ondaatje is made up of snapshots from a number of connected lives that come in and out of focus, intermittently shadowy and full of bright light.
The English Patient (1992), the novel which shot Ondaatje to fame, dealt with the aftershocks of war, its damaged characters struggling to find their way once the heat of battle is over. In Warlight he returns to this theme; London in 1945 is starting to recover from the war, but for the narrator Nathaniel, then a curious teenager, and his older sister Rachel, the losses have only just begun.
In those days it was not unusual for parents to leave their children for extended periods, but Nathaniel’s parents, who announce that they are going to Singapore for a year, seem peculiarly blasé about the safety of their offspring, leaving them in the nominal care of a man known to the children as The Moth.
The Moth introduces them to a world of small-time criminality, filling their sitting room with dubious but likeable characters including The Darter, who smuggles racing greyhounds into London on a canal barge. There is a great deal of fascinating background detail in the book, not least the intimate portrayal of post-war London, grimy and dimly lit but bustling with energy. The characters who swirl in and out of Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives are similarly carefully drawn, including the glamorous ethnographer Olive Lawrence who ‘steps out’ with The Darter for a time before disappearing East.
Their parents gone, the two teenagers begin to discover the wide world that awaits them. Nathaniel, with the self-interest of all teenagers, is too busy losing his virginity to a girl known as Agnes and helping The Darter with his illegal schemes to worry very much about where his parents are. He also fails to notice Rachel drifting away from him, and her life becomes another of the book’s mysteries.
The discovery of their mother Rose’s steamer trunk, so carefully packed with clothes suitable for Singapore, hidden in the cellar, is a shock. Has she gone abroad at all? Where is she, if not in Singapore? And where is their father? Does it matter?
The scenes from their youth are interspersed with chapters that take place fifteen or so years later. Nathaniel, now working in the Foreign Office archives department, is tentatively beginning to unravel some of the mysteries that marked his teenage years, including the abrupt reappearance of his mother and a violent clash that led to Rachel’s permanent estrangement.
Shadowy figures weave in and out of the action – a market gardener, a Balkan assassin, and man called Marsh Felon, who knew Rose before and during the war, and who may hold the key to what she was doing in those years.
Along with Nathaniel we begin to realise how much he has lost, almost without noticing. The lusty teenage boy has become a quiet, watchful man who spends his days going through dusty papers and creaking recordings, finding his mother at last hidden in the archives, closer and more real than she ever was in person. But where is his father? His sister? The girl known as Agnes, The Moth and The Darter? They are all lost.
Memory is always fallible, and the gaps in Nathaniel’s memories are sometimes filled in with guesses, possibilities, wild ideas – it is sometimes impossible to know which are real. He admits to reconstructing stories ‘from a grain of sand’.
There is very little dialogue in the novel; brief exchanges are sandwiched between lengthy descriptions and reminiscences, and even scenes of dramatic action are skilfully presented as though we are at a distance from them, looking, perhaps, through a pane of misty glass. His prose is spare, careful, his descriptions as sharp as we have come to expect (loud music is described as ‘violent and chaotic, without courtesy’).
Ondaatje excels at leaving his readers with more questions than answers, portraying a few snapshots of a life and no more. Warlight has a powerful elegiac feel, suffused with regret and missed opportunities. As in The English Patient, we are left wondering what will become of the remaining characters when their war has ended, and what it truly means to survive.