Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

warlight

 

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.’

Thams

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.

Trinity

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 Ondaatje-RGB 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:

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/michael-ondaatje-and-the-magical-art-of-the-opening-sentence-1.3520252

 

Three great holiday reads

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

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My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more of less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point. Not in the ‘she moved to Tucson’ sense, but in the sense that ‘we grew apart’.

The Burning Girl tells the story of two girls, Julia and Cassie, who become best friends in nursery school and  stay so until they grow apart as teenagers. Cassie starts changing in seventh grade into someone Julia barely recognises. Having always been together at their small primary school and having played after school every day, the girls then go to high school and are ‘pushed apart by bureaucracy’ – Julia is cleverer than Cassie; they no longer have classes together, and a new girl swiftly becomes Cassie’s new best friend. The novel is written from Julia’s point of view, and one of the strengths of this well-written book is the emotional sensitivity with which Messud deals with Julia’s observations of Cassie, detailing the painful teenage angst Julia experiences; that sense of still loving your friend and aching inside for being left out. They grow apart, yet Julia always defends Cassie as her behaviour becomes increasingly rebellious. When Cassie disappears, it is Julia who understands her friend so deeply that she knows where to find her. Messud’s portrayal of this intense relationship is beautifully depicted.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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Another novel about friendships, this time between two families who both live in the middle-class suburb of Shaker Heights (creepily like the Stepford Wives’ setting) in mid-west America. The Richardsons are a wealthy well-established nuclear family, while the Warrens are their poorer tenants; Mia Warren a nomadic artist and Pearl, her daughter, a teenager desperate to settle down. Ng is adept at portraying these characters; the Richardson teenagers insouciant in their wealth, who lounge about watching Jerry Springer shows, drive expensive cars and wear their clothes effortlessly. Their father is a corporate lawyer, their mother a reporter. Their youngest daughter, Izzy, is not as ‘perfect’ as her siblings, however, being a difficult, prickly individual prone to running away and causing trouble. Pearl is seduced by this family, becoming friends with the younger son, falling in love with the older one, the golden-boy; in awe of the oldest daughter;  becoming embarrassed of her poorly furnished small home and her eccentric mother. On the other hand, Izzy, is drawn to Mia’s creativity and eclectic artistic house, and her unjudgemental acceptance of Izzy. When Mrs Richardson, noting Izzy’s attraction to Mia and Pearl’s presence in the Richardson home, asks Mia to become their cleaner, the relationships start to shift. Another strand of the story arises, where both mothers take opposite stances in a controversial adoption within the Shaker community, while leads to an irretrievable shakeup. Ng portrays these fragile relationship exquisitely, particularly those of mothers and their children and the mistakes that happen, sometimes deliberately,  often almost inadvertently. The title refers to the opening scene in which the Richardson’s home is ablaze with fire,  started, according to the fire chief, by ‘little fires everywhere’; but at the same time reflects the minutiae of each relationship, in which little incidents stoke larger events with dire consequences.

Future Home of the Living Gods by Louise Erdich

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It is a pity there is such a focus on the Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the moment, as some readers might accuse Erdich of imitating it, not knowing that Atwood wrote the novel over 30 years ago. Erdich’s outstanding book deserves to stand alone with its imaginative look at a near-dystopian society, in which time appears to be moving backwards; reverse evolution as it were. The main character is a young pregnant woman of Native American origins called Cedar Hawk Songmaker; adopted by a white couple. When Cedar goes to find her Obijwe birth mother, she quite delightfully discovers her real name is in fact just Mary Potts and that her birth family is not mystical in any way. This is one of the things I like about Erdich’s novels – they always have a slight wry humour to them. Cedar seeks out her birth family to find out their medical history and any genetic makeup that might affect her baby, in this society in which animals and insects are slowly reverting to their prehistoric forms. Many human babies are being born in a more humanoid form, while fewer ‘perfect’ ones exist. As a result of this, pregnant women are being rounded up and held prisoner in ‘homes’ in which women disappear after giving birth to babies who are confiscated. Cedar narrates the novel in the form of a diary to her unborn child, thus exposing the reader to her alternating excitement and terror. Erdich has created a novel which, beneath its fantastic plot, weaves themes of diversity, acceptance, familial bonds, racism and sexism in all forms. It was a fantastic read.

 

Two great books I’ve recently read: Road Ends and The Signature of All Things

Road Ends by Mary Lawson

ImageIn this novel, Mary Lawson writes about small town life in Canada, concentrating on one particularly dysfunctional family that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. The eldest boy in the family, Tom, lost one of his best friends to suicide and eighteen months later, Tom is still too numb to do anything other than live at home and drive a snow plough clearing roads as a job. He barely talks to anyone anymore. His mother has had another baby, despite being advised not to by doctors, has retreated into her own world and totally ignores the rest of the family. Then there’s Meg, the only daughter, the one who has kept the family together and the household running. The father, Edward, is either at work or in his study and avoids his children as much as possible; he seems quite unable to parent. And last of all, there’s dear Adam, who is little still, and totally neglected. He reminded me of a stray dog, desperate for love.

Meg, however, decided she must leave home and goes far away to London where she creates her own working life in a hotel. The household descends into squallor and chaos without her around and, reluctantly, Tom is faced with having to confront just how bad it is and has to learn to deal with the world and responsibilities again. Eventually he writes to Meg and asks her to come home.

I’ve related that in such a bland way; believe me, the book is so much better than the synopsis I’ve just written. It is so tender at times, while mirroring the unintentional cruelties that family members can inflict on each other. It also reflects well the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town, where everyone watches Tom deal (or not deal) with his grief. It’s a great read.

 

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I haven’t been so pleasantly surprised by a book in a long time – what a great read. I didn’t like Eat, Love, Pray; found it cloying and cringe-worthy, so I didn’t look kindly upon this new novel of Gilbert’s. It is also another tome (why is there such a trend at the moment for extremely long books?), which put me off for a while.

But the minute I started the first paragraph, I knew I was in for a wonderful story written by a very accomplished author. Image

Alma Whittaker, the book’s protagonist, is one of the best characters I’ve met in a long time. She’s not beautiful, she’s not graceful or dainty but my heavens, would she have made a great feminist. Brought up from a young age by her parents to speak her mind, she is intelligent, educated, and constantly curious. The book is set in the 1900s, starting with the story of her parents, and then spanning Alma’s life. It ranges around the globe from London to Peru, Philadelphia to Tahiti and then Amsterdam. Her father, Henry, is an extremely rich man who made his money through the acquisition of rare botanical specimens, while her mother is extremely knowledgable about botany and so Alma grows up in a world of science and exploration, with finally focussing her studies on all kinds of moss.

Through her studies, she meets a man who becomes her husband, a man who brings great sorrow into her life and causes her to finally leave the house she grew up in and go in search of answers to his peculiarities. With these travels, she slowly develops a theory of evolution that equals Darwin’s. 

Gilbert must have done  an incredible amount of research, both scientifically and historically, for this book, but never once does it sound didactic and I was totally absorbed in Alma’s totally believable world. She is such a rounded character, robust and capable and yet very vulnerable and aware of her physical shortcomings (she’s large with wild red hair, big hands, ‘comely’ one might say). 

I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time. It’s not as detailed as The Goldfinch (although about the same length) and perhaps not as skilfully written, but it’s a fantastic story. 

 

 

Daughters of Jerusalem by Charlotte Mendelson

Charlotte Mendelson’s skill at portraying the undercurrents running beneath a family’s daily routines is superb. In Daughters of Jerusalem, she tells the story of the Lux family, who live a normal academic type of life – the father, a professor, the mother a translator, the elder daughter brainy and serious, the younger one pretty and demanding. 

But beneath this facade of normality, emotions and secrets brew and bubble until they have to spill over and break open the fragile security of the nuclear family. Jean, the mother, is bored of her life, she is sick of Oxford, hates the town and its inhabitants, and badly wants to get away. An unexpected declaration from a friend gives her a new escape from her life and in her obsession, she ignores her family.

Victor, the father, appears to be a typical absent-minded professor, yet he is insecure in his post and is desperate to be chosen to give the prestigious Spenser memorial lecture.

Eve, the elder daughter, is exquisitely portrayed as a teenager full of self-hatred and anger at the world. She is ignored in the main by her parents, who concentrate on trying to appease the younger daughter, Phoebe, and Eve resorts to desperate measures to impress her parents, like asking her father to teach her ancient Greek, or give her books on French art. She is a lonely, unhappy teenager, who cuts herself or pricks herself with her mother’s needles to be able to feel something and who plots the demise of her seemingly charmed sister.

Phoebe, the younger daughter, is flirtatious and demanding, wants attention all the time, wants a pony, gets what she wants – but she is not happy, either. She is a ‘dunce’ in an extremely clever family and she secretly drinks and takes drugs to seek distraction from family life. 

The story crescendoes when Victor’s nemesis, Raymond Snow, appears in Oxford and in some way, each member of the Lux family is affected by him. He is a noxious man, yet charming and a perfect antagonist.

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The author

Mendelson description of the character’s inner lives is brutal – she doesn’t pretty up any of it. She writes what many of us have thought, but would never say out loud. She depicts familial relationships in as honest a way as possible with all the vicious undercurrents and petty hatreds that suffuse families. Reviews talk about the Lux family being dysfunctional, yet I believe so many families function with similar pathologies – they are just never exposed until a crisis occurs.

Mendelson has written two other books and her fourth is being publishing in August this year. I look forward to it immensely.