Warlight is a textured mosaic of people and places. It is a mystery story, a spy novel, a signature work written by Michael Ondaatje, the master storyteller, told with a lyrical virtuosity that reminds me of his earlier novels, The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion. The story begins in London in the mid 1940’s when England is beginning its recovery from World War II. There is still much rubble to clear way from bombed out buildings and an overall atmosphere of weariness and deprivation. The story is told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel. He and his older sister Rachael have spent the war years in the countryside where it was relatively safe from the constant bombing. Their parents remained in the city and contributed to the war effort in undefined, clandestine government jobs or so the children are led to believe. The family is reunited in 1945 to begin post war life in a rambling old house in South London close to the Thames and its mass of tendrilling water canals.
The effort to build a quiet family life is postponed when mother and father announce they are going to Singapore for a year because of the father’s employment. The plan is for Nathaniel and Rachel to attend a boarding school spending holidays and weekends in the family home in the care of a mysterious character already living in the third story of their house as a boarder. The children nicknamed him ‘The Moth’ because of his quiet, reclusive presence. Nathaniel and Rachael have no choice but to accept the situation and do not question what is going on until after the parents have been gone several months. They find their mother’s travel trunk hidden in the basement with all the clothes she had carefully packed for the year she was supposedly spending in Singapore. The Moth offers no explanation of where the parents have gone and if they are safe. Nathaniel and Rachel are understandably upset and start to act out their anxieties in ways that get them in trouble at school. They end up being expelled from their boarding school but with the help of the Moth a compromise is reached allowing them to return as day students while living in the family home with the mysterious Moth. A second character takes up residence in their London home, an ex-professional boxer who acquires the nickname of the Pimlico Darter. An assortment of mysterious ragtag friends and acquaintances of The Moth and the Darter fill the house at night and gradually it becomes evident the parents have left for reasons that relate to their wartime activities and not their father’s employment. Nathaniel and Rachel lose interest in school and become involved in the underground these strange individuals inhabit. They live on the edge of a criminal world and accompany the Darter as he goes go up and down the Thames carrying a cargo comprised for the most part of shy, illegally imported greyhounds with fake pedigrees.
The story is embellished with ventures into the dodgier corners of London. The moth finds a job for Nathaniel in the night laundry of the Criterion Hotel where he meets and forms a romantic friendship with Agnes, a girl his own age. Agnes has a brother who is a real estate agent and access to a variety of empty houses where she and Nathaniel can meet tête à tête. Often they accompany the Darter on his smuggling activities. Then the story jumps to about twenty years in the future when Nathaniel works for an archives kept by the British Secret Service. He is still trying to piece together the mystery of his parent’s and particulrly, his mother’s wartime activities.
I have not revealed many of Warlight’s details because the pleasure and enjoyment of this book is in the colouring of character and atmosphere. It is a book that is totally absorbing so be prepared to lose sleep because once you start you will be reading late into the night. Do not neglect to read the author’s acknowledgements at the end. The books mentioned provide insight into where a writer finds inspiration which is basically everywhere and serendipitously and with luck . You will appreciate that the bits and pieces gathered far and wide are magically transformed into something brilliant in the mind of an artist.