Michael Ondaatje does it again with his new novel, Warlight. He creates an oddly uncomfortable and somewhat satisfying story in an ambivalent historical time. I need to explain that.
Warlight was oddly uncomfortable because I loved the writing style but not the story or characters. And yet, as it read on, the story became more satisfying and I connected with the characters who appear in the second half.
The environment of London just after World War 2 was an odd time. People were on edge, despite the end of outright war. The world felt insecure. But people also reconnected with loved ones, even if they had changed markedly.
It was a time of great contradictions, and that’s how I’d describe Ondaatje’s book as well.
I couldn’t find a solid dictionary definition or Wikipedia entry for the term, “warlight.” It’s the various partial lights that were necessary and allowed during the blackouts of the Blitz and WW2. For example, it was the single orange light on a bridge. Or minimal lights on roads to guide emergency vehicles.
Similarly, Ondaatje’s story is only partly illuminated. It’s full of dark, unsaid, and unseen corners. Main character Nathaniel grows from teen to man in the course of the book. But he also struggles to understand his parents, especially his mother. And she’s a bit of an riddle.
Teen Nathaniel and his younger sister Rachel are cared for by a motley assortment of people while their parents are out of the country. Each sibling gravitates to one of those people and develops a parent-child relationship. But it’s never quite that simple, and Ondaatje skirts so many emotions that it’s hard to connect with any of the characters.
But at its heart, Warlight is the story of mother and son. Nathaniel and his mother Rose both figure heavily in the narrative arcs. As Nathaniel ages he searches for more details about his mother’s life. Although they reconnect, she’s not forthcoming. His investigations into her wartime activities are intriguing, if still shrouded in partial darkness.
Ondaatje pulls me in with his writing. Despite the odd story and even odder characters, I couldn’t stop. Later in the book, I started collecting his words to reread later. Moments like this are what I love about Ondaatje, “She has accepted a world of secretiveness, where there is a different power, where there is no generosity.” I want to know more about a woman who feels this way.
The first section about Nathaniel was just so-so for me. I’m not much for coming-of-age stories. And if was all so unclear and strange. But once Nathaniel started to reveal more about his mother, I was drawn into the quiet darkness of her life. She is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.
Ondaatje drips her story out drop by drop. For some fellow readers, it was more water torture than novel. For me, it was more pleasant. I began to feel connected to her mystery, just as Nathaniel did. So, ultimately it was Rose I wanted to read about. Her life and the men who affected it were drawn in charcoal tinted with graphite pencil. Nothing was completely clear. The light faced away, but that only made me more curious.
Warlight was a reluctant winner for me.