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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 233

Warlight by Michael Ondaajte is a WWII-era mystery thriller, published in 2018. The protagonist is the narrator Nathaniel, who tells the story as a flashback beginning in 1945. At this point, Nathaniel is fourteen years old, and he has an older sister named Rachel. Their parents leave London for Singapore, and they are left in their mother's friend Walter, called "The Moth" for his taciturn nature. The Moth has a friend named Pimlico Darter, an ex-boxer involved in professional crime. Darter helps Nathaniel get a job at a store, where he commences a sexual relationship with a working-class girl, Agnes Street.

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One night, Nathaniel, Rachel, and The Moth are all attacked. It turns out that their mother was a spy during WWII, and the attackers were foreign operatives. The children are saved by one Arthur McCash, but The Moth is killed.

The novel fast-forwards to Nathaniel's adulthood in 1959, which finds him working at a government archives office. His mother was killed in an attack, and his sister (who now has a child whom she named Walter, in memory of The Moth), was too poisoned against their mother to attend the funeral. Through his work, Nathaniel learns that his mother had an affair while in the foreign service, and Darter and Agnes have married and have a child which may be Nathaniel's. Nathaniel lives in the same small town in Suffolk where his mother grew up.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1748

Author: Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943)

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 304 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Twentieth century

Locales: England, Italy, France

In his seventh novel, Ondaatje offers the coming-of-age story of a shy but perceptive man whose attempts to understand his past reveal the inadequacy of memory and interpretation.

Principal characters

Nathaniel Williams, the narrator

Rachel Williams, his older sister

Rose Williams, their mother, a linguist who worked for the government during World War II

Walter, a.k.a. The Moth, a lodger in their parents’ house who serves as the siblings’ guardian in their parents’ absence

Norman, a.k.a. The Darter, a former boxer and friend of The Moth

Olive Lawrence, widely traveled geographer and ethnographer

Marsh Felon, a famous naturalist and longtime friend of Rose

Only a few months after the end of World War II in Europe, the parents of two young teenagers move from London to Singapore, leaving the children “in the care of two men who may have been criminals,” as Nathaniel describes them. So begins the narrative of an older man recalling the formative years of his life. The first part of the novel is titled “A Table Full of Strangers,” with an emphasis on the strangeness of the people who replace the absent parents. Over the course of the story, Nathaniel reflects on how his parents’ absence, and the presence of various secondary characters, affected his and his sister, Rachel’s, lives. When their reclusive father takes a job in Singapore, their parents arrange for the children to board at their respective day schools for the next year. Until then, their mother, Rose, stays behind after their father leaves. Nathaniel and Rachel bond with their mother and hear stories about what she did during the war from an old acquaintance and lodger in their home, whom the siblings nickname The Moth. Eventually, Rose also leaves for Singapore, making a show of packing her trunk and describing what use she will make of each item. Nathaniel and Rachel move to their schools; however, the children quickly tire of being boarders and persuade The Moth to act as their guardian so they can move home. Once home, they discover their mother’s trunk in the basement and realize that she never went to Singapore.

Nathaniel and Rachel beg The Moth for information about their mother but he claims to know nothing of her whereabouts. Instead, they become involved with the assorted friends that he brings to the house. Nathaniel finds part-time work at the hotel where The Moth manages a large staff preparing for special events. Rachel finds a mother substitute in Olive, a geographer who gains her trust during the time Olive is dating The Moth’s best friend, nicknamed The Darter. From women who come to the house for regular parties, Nathaniel learns “the curious pleasure of female company.”Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

By the time the next school year begins, Nathaniel and Rachel seem to have lost interest in their absent parents. School has also become an “irrelevancy” for them. Rachel, who is epileptic, confides in The Moth as a sort of father figure and finds after-school work as a stage hand in Covent Garden. Nathaniel, meanwhile, spends more time with The Darter. Together, they import greyhounds into the country, obtaining the necessary papers from dodgy veterinarians with fake stamps, and bring the dogs to racetracks, where The Darter dopes them to add an element of uncertainty to the lucrative betting. The people they meet help Nathaniel by forging excuses for his frequent absences from school.

As the novel’s first part comes to a close, around Christmas of the second year, Nathaniel and Rachel are kidnapped by members of an Axis spy ring that has vowed revenge on Rose and her fellow war workers. Rose reappears to rescue her children, and it is revealed that she is actually an active British spy. The siblings are thus forced out of London to find new lives. © Daniel Mordzinski

The novel’s second part, “Inheritance,” follows the narrator’s life after his mother has brought him to her parents’ house in rural Somerset. The focus shifts from Nathaniel’s attempt to make sense of life in London, including puberty and sexual initiation, to his near obsession with the hidden life of his mother, during and after the war. He lives with his mother until he is ready for college, spending just as much time with the neighbor who tends their garden and teaches him lessons on the area’s natural history. Rose says the most about herself just before Nathaniel leaves home to pursue college studies in languages. After he asks if she thinks they are like each other, she responds that she considers her cautiousness and lack of openness to be personal weaknesses and refrains from saying whether they are lifelong traits or behavior necessary to the undercover activities into which she was drawn during the war. She dies when he is at college, murdered by a foreign woman who presumably works for the rival spy ring.

After college, Nathaniel is recruited to work in an office of military archives, where he has both an official job sorting records and a personal job learning more about his mother and her associates. He never learns much about his father, aside from the information that he was a veteran badly damaged emotionally during World War II. Nathaniel comes to rely heavily on old maps, such as those he learned to read while helping The Darter smuggle greyhounds. Maps become metaphors in the novel for the movements they direct, most famously in the allied invasion of Europe on D-day. Maps are also used to connect Nathaniel to Rose, who learned to read maps from a naturalist and old friend named Marsh.

While Nathaniel is staying in his mother’s childhood home, he discovers more information about Marsh and his mother. He suddenly knows what she did during the war, insofar as he can imagine her story for himself; how she worked the signals during the war, used her linguistic skills to make radio broadcasts under the code name Viola, and traveled to warn a British agent operating on the Continent. It may seem that the narrative point of view suddenly shifts from that of a first-person narrator to that of an omniscient third-person narrator; however, there are occasional interjections into the narrative. For example, Nathaniel asks, “What did she feel?” and reminds himself and his reader, “I could only step into fragments of the story.”

There are only two dates in the novel: 1945, when Rose and her husband place their children in boarding school and say that they are leaving for a year in Singapore, and 1958, when the twenty-eight-year-old Nathaniel is working at the war archive and manages to buy his grandparents’ house in Somerset. However, Warlight reflects a much larger time frame, moving from Rose’s childhood—when she nurses a young Marsh after he fell off the roof of her parents’ house while helping to apply new thatch—through the war and postwar years to when the narrator is an old man. At the time Nathaniel is narrating his story, he lets his pet greyhound set his daily schedule of rising, eating, writing, and going to bed.

Ondaatje does not write the story of Rose and her colleagues but lets her son try to reconstruct it, causing the narrative to progress unevenly. Like Ondaatje’s critically acclaimed novel The English Patient (1992), its plot must be gathered by bits and pieces. Hints dropped in the beginning of the novel—such as the name of a radio program Rose likes, a street over which Nathaniel drives The Darter’s car, or an abbey on a river they navigate with dogs—become crucial in Nathaniel’s reconstruction of events he missed or failed to understand. The novel’s title is explained only in the last pages. The “warlight” referenced turns out to be the faint glow of London during the war, when the buildings and land vehicles are blacked out after dark but the bridges have lights to warn boats hauling goods along the river Thames. Nathaniel never saw this light, as he spent the Blitz with has grandparents in Sussex. He has to imagine it in his reconstruction of the world his mother knew. Like the residents of wartime London, readers of Warlight must learn to find their way in semidarkness.

“We order our lives with barely held stories,” Nathaniel writes in the novel’s last section, “gathering what was invisible and unspoken . . . sewing it all together in order to survive.” The novel thus becomes a profound meditation on storytelling and what is sometimes called the reconstructive memory. As such, it has received much critical admiration. Alex Preston, reviewing the book for the Guardian, called it a magical and masterful novel, “as rich, as beautiful, as melancholy as life itself, written in the visionary language of memory.” Many critics complimented Ondaatje’s engaging characters; however, some reviewers argued that his writing in this novel is mundane. As Penelope Lively, writing for the New York Times, noted, the work “requires close reading” and attention to the many details about London and Somerset. Ondaatje offers a long list of books and articles he read as research, as well as of people who helped him learn about places he visited. He took great interest in the stories that he heard or read and that interest comes across in the liveliness of his fictional retelling.

Review Sources

  • Lively, Penelope. “Wartime Acts, Postwar Retribution: A Mother’s Risky Legacy.” Review of Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. The New York Times, 7 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/07/books/review/michael-ondaatje-warlight.html. Accessed 26 Sept. 2018.
  • Mundow, Anna. “Warlight is a Quiet New Masterpiece from Michael Ondaatje.” Review of Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. The Washington Post, 4 May 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/warlight-is-a-quiet-new-masterpiece-from-michael-ondaatje/2018/05/04/82b0fbe8-4fbd-11e8-84a0-458a1aa9ac0a_story.html. Accessed 26 Sept. 2018.
  • Preston, Alex. “Magic from a Past Master.” Review of Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. The Guardian, 5 June 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/05/warlight-michael-ondaatje-review. Accessed 26 Sept. 2018.
  • Review of Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Kirkus Reviews, 1 Mar. 2018, p. 1. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=128893461&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 19 Nov. 2018.
  • Review of Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Publishers Weekly, 5 Mar. 2018, p. 47. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=128317532&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 19 Nov. 2018.

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