WARLIGHT. By Michael Ondaatje. Knopf. 285 pages. $26.95.
Good first lines have the power to pull a reader into the story. Think of Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.” Or Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Michael Ondaatje, a prolific author of poetry, nonfiction and fiction, including the award-winning novel, "The English Patient," begins his latest novel "Warlight" with this line: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”
The parents of 14-year-old Nathaniel and 16-year-old Rachel explain that they’re moving to Singapore for a year, and leaving the children behind. Nathaniel and Rachel are left in the care of their mother’s “colleague,” a man they nickname the Moth for his “tentative presence, ... his alighting here and there.” The Moth tells them stories of working with their mother Rose during the war, intercepting German messages and transmitting data across the English Channel.
“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 clear intent?” Nathaniel narrates the story from the safe distance of adulthood, “still uncertain whether the period that followed disfigured or energized my life.”
Ondaatje’s prose is rich and lyrical. The post-war city of London felt “wounded, uncertain of itself.” It was a time of “war-ghosts, the grey buildings unlit, even at night, their shattered windows still covered over with black material where glass had been.”
Soon after their parent’s departure, strange and captivating men and women filter through the house at all hours. The facade of a “normal” family life falls away, and the siblings are left on their own to come and go as they please.
Nathaniel begins working odd jobs in a banquet hall managed by the Moth. There, he observes the Moth “in the midst of this great human sea” sitting at a table filling out worksheets as “men on ladders holding thirty-foot whisks to pluck cobwebs off chandeliers, and wood polishers who disguised the odours from the previous night” buzz around him.
One night, Nathaniel is asked to help transport artwork from the tunnels beneath the hotel. He’s told that the paintings and sculptures were hidden during the war and were now being returned to museums. Soon after, he’s asked to help transport greyhound racing dogs with the Darter, the Moth’s right-hand man, down the river in the middle of the night. Nathaniel quickly loses interest in school as he gains access to this colorful and exciting underground world.
The thing about memory is that shared experiences are different according to the viewpoint. While Nathaniel looks back wistfully, Rachel remains hurt and angry, and later accuses him of ignoring what their parents did to them. “We were damaged Nathaniel, recognize that,” she says.
In Part Two, Ondaatje takes us away from the city, to the fall of 1959. Nathaniel is 28 and has bought a house in a Suffolk village where he lived with his mother after her dramatic return. Some readers may resist the transition from the vivid, fantasy world of Nathaniel’s youth to the less compelling reality of adulthood. Others may be satisfied with the neat way Ondaatje pulls together the pieces of the puzzle, including Rose’s story, which is disappointingly anti-climactic. She remains a mystery, even as she allows her son glimpses of her role in the war.
"Warlight" is a story of love and war, secrets and truth, and the way we remember. It’s about the way our stories shape us and the poignancy of turning to face the future. Nathaniel says, “You return to the earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit.”
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a writer in Charleston.