His first novel in seven years, Ondaatje’s Warlight starts with the sentence: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”, and carries on to take the reader into the murky world of post-war London in which two teenagers have been abandoned by their parents.
Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are told by their father one morning after breakfast that he and their mother will be moving to Singapore for a year, but that the children will be ‘well cared for in their absence‘. They are be looked after by the tenant who lives on the third-floor, nicknamed ‘The Moth’ by Rachel and Nathaniel for his shy, moth-like movements.
At the end of the book, twenty-eight-year old Nathaniel tells us that, ‘We order our lives with barely held stories‘ and it is he who narrates the story of his life – the first part of the book describing the transformation of the teenagers’ lives into an unsupervised time, being cared for with benign neglect by The Moth and his friend, The Darter, the other suspected criminal. Here I was drawn in by Ondaatje’s masterful ability to create a London in which Nathaniel lives his new extraordinary life, one in which school barely features, and in which he and Rachel start having to bring themselves up.
‘The Moth is often away, but his absence, like his presence, barely mattered. My sister and I were now foraging for ourselves, becoming self-sufficient.’
‘Sometimes, under the influence of whatever he was drinking, The Moth became cheerfully incomprehensible to us, in spite of the fact that he appeared assured about what he thought he was saying’.
Nathaniel works in his holidays as a lift jockey in an upmarket hotel, washes dishes in a fast-paced restaurant, and meets people who he would not have in his previous family life. He starts seeing a waitress, Agnes, whose brother is an estate agent and gives them keys to empty houses to which they go and have sex on grubby carpets. He and Rachel start eating most of their meals from street barrows with The Moth, who doesn’t care to cook.
People drift in and out of their house, enigmatic and often elusive, sometimes drunk or hungover, though one or two make a marked impression on Nathaniel and who appear later in the novel. Olive Lawrence, for example, an alluring ethnographer whose exotic travels Nathaniel follows later in his life; Arthur McAsh who Nathaniel suspects knows more about his mother’s war-time work than he does.
Nathaniel gradually starts working for The Darter, who, despite his mysterious nefarious activities, probably cares most for Nathaniel and Rachel out of all the adult figures. The Darter’s business involves smuggling racing greyhounds and other unknown cargo, which activity takes place on barges at night in known and unknown canals of the Thames, though tunnels, past dark power stations, to hidden locations where they meet seagoing vessels that unload the surprising cargo. Ondaatje’s descriptions of these evening excursions are magical, at once both luminous and dark, cinematic:
‘We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.’
Amongst this almost enchantment of an abandoned life, in which I began to wonder if the siblings even remembered their parents, comes Rachel’s discovery of their mother’s trunk in the basement, the one they had seen her pack for Singapore, and questions begin to arise as to exactly where their mother is and who she is. Ondaatje gives the reader hints and snippets of information, weaving the story in much the same way that a child learns about life, so we, nor Nathaniel, never get to know the full story of his parents. When Nathaniel finally meets his mother again, it is after he and Rachel narrowly escape being kidnapped, an incident which brings Nathaniel back to his mother, but which pushes Rachel away.
By the second half of the book, it’s 1959, Nathaniel has grown up and is working for British Intelligence, reviewing wartime files. He has bought a house in Suffolk, one he knows well from the time when he lived in the area with his mother after her return from her mysterious sojourn. He spends his working time searching through files for clues as to what his mother’s occupation was and what took her away from them, reflecting on the years he lived with her after her return; the clues – like scars on her arms she kept hidden by pulling down the sleeves of her cardigan, the role of The Moth in her life, a hand-drawn map Nathaniel finds hidden in one of her books. He discovers his mother, Rose, also known as Viola, who was involved in the post-war effort in Eastern Europe, although Nathaniel is not quite sure in what way.
In this second half, Ondaatje starts pulling together all the threads of the story, minor characters become more important, and small events take on more significance. A boy once mentioned as having fallen off his mother’s roof when she was little, emerges as an important war-time figure who worked closely with Rose. We meet this character, Marsh Felon, again in an extraordinary scene where he scales up walls and climbs across the roofs of Trinity College at night while studying at Cambridge – ‘he strolled the cloister roofs, ascended rough walls.’ (Marsh was inspired by a book called The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity; an actual book available from Amazon.) He encounters other ‘nocturnals’, one of whom recruits him into the war effort, and through this group of people, re-establishes contact with Rose.
Though I say Ondaatje pulls it altogether, he does so in subtle ways so I didn’t end the book feeling like I had read a war-time thriller about a female spy. I felt much like Nathaniel, who while working, says:
Viola, are you Viola? I used to whisper to myself, slowly discovering how my mother was on the second floor of that building I worked in.
We slowly discover who she is and, in doing so, learn the barely held stories of Nathaniel’s life. This is a book written by a master story-teller, whose prose is so elegant, beautiful and serenely written that is elevated from being a war-time story to a quiet masterpiece. This one turns out to be, I believe, his best since The English Patient.
To read an interview about Ondaatje’s writing process, see: