Book Review of “Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje.
From Goodreads: “It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and both grow more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel.”
Anyone who has been following my blog knows that Ondaatje is my favorite author, so a new novel by him is always something I’m on the lookout for. In fact, the minute I knew this book was coming out, I pre-ordered a print copy. However, when Edelweiss let me ask for an ARC, and then approved my request, I was surprised, and of course, thrilled (and no, I didn’t cancel my order for the print book; it is, after all Ondaatje). What makes Ondaatje my favorite isn’t always the stories he tells, but how he tells them. In fact, sometimes Ondaatje can be confusing in his story telling, but even when things don’t make perfect sense, his prose is always so exquisite that it doesn’t matter. Goodreads also said about this book “In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire.” Yeah… ‘luminous’ is a very good word for what Ondaatje gives us, and he does succeed in giving it to us every time.
Rather than continue to be effusive about how Ondaatje writes (and you know I could go on endlessly), I think I should concentrate on the story, which is told mostly from the narrator’s point of view, that being Nathaniel. I should note that in this book, Ondaatje moves between first and third person, where you get the feeling that Nathaniel is also narrating the third person sections, while at the same time, taking an omnipresent viewpoint. I know that doesn’t sound like it makes any sense, but if you think of it as the ‘imagination’ part noted above from the Goodreads blurb, I think you’ll understand what I mean here. My thinking is that Ondaatje needed the first-person parts to draw the reader in, and make them sympathetic to Nathaniel, but that viewpoint doesn’t allow for the wider picture of things that happened beyond Nathaniel’s own experiences; to include those events, he allows Nathaniel to imagine them from a distance, in both time and through piecing together clues he finds.
What this does is give us a very layered story, wherein Ondaatje starts with Nathaniel as a young teenager, and builds on this time in a mostly chronological order. Ondaatje then moves to Nathaniel as a young man, and this is where he introduces the third person/imagination sections of the story. These passages help Nathaniel fill in the blanks of his own life, but more importantly, he also learns more about his mother’s life, and what really happened to her when she disappeared from his life. All the other characters seem to dance on the sidelines of Nathaniel’s life, until their presence is necessary to add something to the story, and only then they can take center stage for a time. I found this fascinating in how it seemed to say that although you might sometimes feel that certain people have no significant impact on your life, in fact, there are no real minor characters, you just don’t always understand their importance at the time.
However, I don’t think that was the main point of this book, although for me it was a substantial part. If I had to pinpoint what I think Ondaatje is saying here, I’d say that we must look at the title of the book and attempt to understand its significance. For those who read this book the word “warlight” only appears near the end of the novel when Ondaatje talks about how the British helped barges find their way on the Thames when they transported munitions during the war. What this says to me is that this story is more about Nathanial finding his way, than who or what was helping or hindering him along his path. If that means it is a “coming of age” story, then so be it, and I can’t think of one more beautifully written than this. On the other hand, there was one phrase that Ondaatje used which I think may be even more significant in understanding what this book is about, and that’s the one I used as the title of this review – the consequences of peace. That simple combination of words is so powerful and evocative for me, that I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it for a very long time, if only because it is an impeccable example of how amazing a writer Ondaatje proves to be, time and again.
That only leaves the question if this book has overtaken “The English Patient” and “The Cat’s Table” as my favorite of Ondaatje’s works, and I must be honest and say no – those two are still my favorites. However, if until now I ranked “Anil’s Ghost” as just below those two, I believe that this book has edged that novel out, but only by a just a whisper. Of course, this means I must give it a full five stars, and you know I’m recommending it wholeheartedly (as if you expected anything less).
Knopf/Penguin Random House released “Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje on May 8, 2018. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook UK or iBook US), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for allowing me an ARC copy of this novel via Edelweiss.