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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje – book review

Michael Ondaatje: fascinating facts and authentic observation. Photo/Alamy

Michael Ondaatje’s tale of a man probing his mother’s wartime spy work is affecting and affected.

In 1945, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel are abandoned by their parents and left in the custody of a mysterious man named The Moth. He has a group of enigmatic friends, and soon the house is filled with a crew of odd individuals who the children suspect may be criminals. When they find the trunk that their mother packed in front of them, supposedly for a trip to Singapore, they realise her story was a lie.

They spend their teen years in a state of precarious insecurity, cared for by The Moth and his cohorts, whose activities include riverboat smuggling, greyhound racing and other illegal schemes.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Post-war London is shrouded in “warlight”; it’s a city of blackouts, bomb sites, derelict houses, shadowy figures and intrigue, where the aftermath of war carries its own dangers: “Wars don’t end. They never remain in the past.

It gradually becomes clear that the children’s mother, Rose, has been an active wartime agent for the Foreign Office with the codename Viola, and that even though the fighting has ended, the danger for her and her family hasn’t passed.

Many years later, Nathaniel tries to uncover the secrets of his past. He takes a job in the Foreign Office, and begins looking for evidence of his parents’ lives. “You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you.”

Having lived his youth without understanding it, he wants to know. Why did his mother leave? What was the “important work” she was engaged in, and why, eventually, did men come looking for her children, seeking revenge?

It’s possible to have the same mixed reaction to Michael Ondaatje’s new novel as to its famous predecessor, The English Patient, recently named the best Booker Prize winner in the award’s history: total absorption in a complex and moving plot, combined with occasional resistance to the prose style. Three-quarters of the way in, Nathaniel asks, “Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?” And a few pages later, “But how did he become what he became, this rural boy curious about the distant world?” In another scene, Nathaniel is told, “You have a quiet heart.” More than once, characters “inhale” the world around them.

It’s the kind of affected prose that signals great depth and vision. Like a sermon, it demands reverence, and will no doubt receive it, although it can lack authenticity and humour. Yet there are plenty of shrewd, meaningful reflections too, like this one: “If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on an hourly basis. You do not concern yourself with what you must or should remember about them. You are on your own.”

The endnotes list the author’s research into London’s waterways, signals intelligence, smuggling, roof-climbing, spies, post-war Europe, greyhound racing and the topography of Suffolk. For Ondaatje fans, it’s a typically rich mixture: fascinating facts, an atmospheric setting, a satisfyingly complex plot, authentic observation and some literary smoke and mirrors.

WARLIGHT, by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape, $35)

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.