Just after World War II, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings' mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn't know and understand in that time.
Ondaatje’s title refers to the name used during the London Blitz for the permitted lights that facilitated emergency traffic during blackouts. But it is also emblematic of the blanket of secrecy that surrounds Nathaniel’s childhood, especially the activities of his mother during the war and its aftermath. Moreover, it aptly describes the mood that Ondaatje creates in his novel. Everything is seen darkly; memories are unreliable; there are gaps in the archival record; the characters are not always what they seem; and much is only obliquely inferred.
The novel explores the ubiquitous uncertainties in human interactions. Multiple characters express this sentiment. “We were used to partial stories.” “No one really understands another’s life or even death.” "Your own story is just the one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” “The world is also messy.” Ondaatje questions the importance of constructing a clear picture, or whether the inevitable haziness should be accepted and even cherished.
The first half of the novel is set in London immediately following WWII. The city is full of rubble. It’s dark and mysterious. Clearly, Ondaatje has a lot of fun conjuring some mysterious characters giving them colorful nicknames (e.g., Stitch, Wren and, of course, Agnes Street) and creating wonderful images to fill Nathaniel’s backstory. Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are left in the family home in the care of strangers by their parents who embark for Singapore, ostensibly for their father to work for Unilever. One immediately wonders why any parent would do something that strange. The kids call their caretaker the Moth, a man who shares his duties with a friend, the Pimlico Darter. The kids are suspicious that these crude but loving men “may have been criminals." This notion is only reinforced when Darter enlists Nathaniel’s help smuggling illegal greyhounds and suspicious crates into the city along its waterways at night. To add to the mystery, these men seem to attract a host of shady characters who also seem to have unusual skill sets. The reader quickly guesses that all is not what it seems. Dad may be suffering from the psychological effects of the war. Rose, their mother may not have gone to Singapore. Indeed, she carefully packs her trunk in front of the kids, but they later find it stored in their Putney basement. Also she bears some curious scars on her arms that are hard to explain. Moreover, Nathaniel thinks he may have seen her once at a London nightspot. Obviously, Rose is a complicated woman working at some strange and secretive things. Nathaniel’s suspicion that all is not well intensifies following their aborted kidnapping. “I could hear Rachel’s muffled crying as we were bundled into separate vans, to be delivered to separate destinations. Where were we going? Into another life.”
In the second half of the novel, Ondaatje focuses on Rose’s backstory. Nathaniel is now in his 20s and working for British Intelligence “correcting” wartime records. Naturally, his unfettered access to these archives tempts him to solve the mysteries surrounding his mother. By retracing her wartime activities, he learns that she may have been a spy, codenamed “Viola”; that she may have been recruited to the Intelligence Service by a childhood friend named Marsh Felon; that something violent may have happened to her in Yugoslavia after the war and that may have sparked revenge attempts against Rose and her family. Was this the reason why the children were left in the care of others. Were these caretakers and friends also affiliated with the Intelligence community? It’s fun to speculate about these and other mysteries Ondaatje gives us.
WARLIGHT is indeed an intriguing mystery filled with lyrical writing and compelling imagery. Ondaatje uses a leisurely pace to tell his story injecting just enough facts to tempt interest while leaving plenty of room for speculation and suspense.
In the early pages of this story, the parents of Nathaniel, 14, and his sister, Rachel 16, need to leave town and they are placed in the care of a family friend, affectionately known as "The Moth". The reader as well as the children don't know much about The Moth or the somewhat surreal characters who show up at their door. Questions abound. Why would parents leave their children when they are coming of age and need them? What exactly have they done? Are they criminals on the run? Is everyone in danger? The following chapters slowly and atmospherically unfold the connections and their purpose.
I found the novel very well written, moody, nostalgic and dreamlike.
Some may not enjoy how slowly the story unfolds and ahaa moments come at a snails pace and actually, as no surprise. Despite that, I consider it a satisfying read of historical fiction. Ondaatje's message is clear and thought provoking.
As this is my first read, it is, of course, ranked the highest but it's teetering, at that.
Two stars for Ondaatje's usual fine writing style. I'm sure others will enjoy this book more than I did.
I have always admired how the English conducted themselves during the horror that was WWII. Michael Ondaatje in his new novel Warlight, makes it clear, through his meticulous research, that I was only aware of a fraction of their sacrifice. The willingness of regular, everyday citizens to fight secretly, in undistinguished ways, with no recognition is quite remarkable.
Nathaniel (14) and Rachel (16) are left by their parents in post-WWII Britain in the care of a very dubious, possibly criminal, man they have been told to call the Moth. He invites other suspicious characters into the home and soon Nathaniel finds himself involved in many and various unexpected activities. Exciting for a teenager for sure, but all in all, very dangerous. The first part of the book reveals that Nathaniel’s mother hasn’t actually gone to Singapore as she suggested. And in Part 2 she is reunited with her children and Nathaniel begins his quest to find out exactly what it is that his mother does.
I found this second part of the book to be almost dream-like in quality as the narrator goes back and forth in time and so many secrets are finally revealed. Breathtakingly beautiful prose adds to the splendor of this book along with finely drawn characters that aren’t always what or who they seem. This was a wonderful story of sacrifice and love of country which makes it an anomaly in today’s world. Very highly recommended.
Nathaniel Williams begins the narration of this story at age 14. He is left alone with his 16-year-old sister Rachel by their parents, who say they need to go on some mysterious trip to Singapore on business. They tell the kids that a household lodger they call “The Moth” will be their caretaker. Thereafter, other adults come and go into their lives who are presumably friends of The Moth, but Nathaniel knows little about who they are or what they do, and as a result, we are kept in the dark as well:
“'The house felt more like a night zoo,' Nathaniel says, 'with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer.'”
Nathaniel finds he likes them though, and both he and Rachel to gravitate to some of them who serve as surrogate parental figures. Then a shocking and unexpected development occurs and upends their lives once again.
The second half of the book takes place when Nathaniel is 28. Nathaniel has gotten a job with British Intelligence, and his job, along with others, “was to unearth whatever evidence might still remain of actions that history might consider untoward.…” Presumably, such evidence would then be eliminated. But Nathaniel uses his access to these hidden documents to try and discover who his parents were; who the others were in his life; and what became of all of them.
Nathaniel pieces together what fragments he can find, but comes to learn that “[n]o one really understands another’s life or even death,” nor can he even understand who he himself is. Because, he muses, “[w]hat I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then.…” But who were these people who taught him really? And why were they all in his life? And can he change anything when he does discover the truth?
Discussion: Ondaatje uses the word “warlight” in the novel to refer to dim lights during blackouts to provide the minimum illumination necessary for the population to function. This too seems to refer to the barest understanding that Nathaniel and we the readers will get of what happened to his parents and to those involved in British Intelligence generally. It’s a very clever narrative trope, but not so satisfying for one who prefers a floodlight on events.
Moreover, I felt a bit like I had witnessed great cruelty toward Nathaniel and Rachel, and I felt sadness over the unwitting and unwilling sacrifices they made for their country. And yet, because of Ondaatje’s style and his use of a narrative “warlight,” which distanced me from the characters, my sense of outrage was more intellectual than emotional; closer to a vague sense of melancholy than a gut-wrenching reading experience.
Ondaatje is an excellent wordsmith, and well-constructed prose is always a joy to read. But it is a "literary" joy rather than the emotional immersion, as one has, for example, in fiction by Jojo Moyes.
Note: This novel made The Man Booker Prize 2018 Longlist (announced July 23, 2018). The author won the 1992 Man Booker Prize for “The English Patient”.
I think the book's strength is the setting, and many of the subsidiary characters, who really come alive. However, it's fair to say that the characters of the narrator's parents are and always remain ciphers, and that the book's larger narrative arc seems half-formed. I got the feeling Ondaatje didn't really care how it ended -- that maybe he started writing and let the book go where it would. And perhaps as a result, it feels so alive, like you, yourself, are floating up a hidden tributary of the Thames in the dark. A number of episodes in the first half were so well-realized that even now, weeks after I read the book, I still feel like I could walk through them myself.
Really a magical book, I think. Still, not for everyone.
They are left in the care of a character the teens identify as the Moth, whom they believe to have unsavory connections. One of his companions,The Darter, is an ex-prize fighter, an aficionado of greyhound racing, and a smuggler. Through these two characters Nathaniel secures work in a hotel as a elevator operator and a kitchen helper, then later helping The Darter with some of his smuggling operations. Soon Rachel discovers their mother's trunk full of belongings stashed in the basement. So where are their parents?
Slowly it is revealed that Nathaniel is writing this book as an adult reflecting back on the experience and the clues he uncovered as an adult.
Beautifully written, atmospheric, sometimes heart breaking and often humorous, I give it 4.5 stars.
This is told mostly from Nathaniel's point of view, partly as a teenager and partly as an adult looking back. Nathaniel comes across as rather like his mother (as opposed to Rachel who has more 'normal' emotional responses), and his limitations, as well as some of the truth of his mother's life story are gradually revealed. The past truly is a different country.
This would be worth reading a second time with the benefit of hindsight.
The state of unknowing pervades this novel. Nathaniel is continuously in a process of uncovering, not the truth exactly, but perhaps the next layer of disguise and misdirection. And although he longs for something solid, he too soon develops the habits of legerdemain. That, however, will stand him in good stead in his later work for the Foreign Office, which seemingly, at one time or another, taps on the talents of nearly everyone in his life. All of which is much easier to see and appreciate from his later vantage point, which allows him to piece together the events of his life that he did not directly witness into a plausible, if singular, narrative.
Michael Ondaatje imbues Nathaniel’s world with a substantial portion of chiaroscuro. His rich description of The Darter’s late night journeys on the Thames or its linked canals, or the midnight escapades of Nathaniel and Agnes in the empty houses they enter, or even the movements of Nathaniel’s mother, Rose, and her Gatherer, Felon, in post-war but yet unruly Naples — all serve to create a romantic picture of espionage, smuggling, illicit sexual encounters, and more. But how much of this is Ondaatje and how much is meant to be Nathaniel’s inflected view of his past? It’s hard to say.
Despite the evident amounts of research that infuse this novel, there are difficulties as well. For example, all of the women (with the possible exception of Rachel) end up sounding and acting the same. They’re all brilliant, beautiful, daring, and sexually adventurous. They just might not be fully believable. And the same holds for most of the men. There is also a curious fascination and faith in the order and plans of the Foreign Office, almost as though in the face of a godless amoral existence only the web of nefarious plans and counter plans provides footing, even if not firm. There is also a curious lack of sensitivity here to the nuances of class and the diction that accompanies class difference in Britain both in 1945 and today. In general, although the novel is certainly readable it feels rather empty. Or maybe I’m missing something.
So, only very gently recommended.
“Warlight” – during the time of the second world war, when there were frequent blackouts in London, there was only the so called “Warlight”, dimmed lights to guide emergency traffic, the rest was covered in black and you could only sense movements in the shadow but not see them. This is the perfect title for Michael Ondaatje’s novel: a lot of what happens remains somewhere in the dark for the protagonist to see. He can only assume things from the quick glances he is granted, but he cannot be sure if his hypotheses are correct. It also represents quite well the atmosphere which is always a bit gloomy and melancholy and certainly never joyful.
At the beginning of the novel, the reader just as the protagonist and narrator is quite irritated by the parents’ behaviour. They leave the country, neither telling their children where exactly they are headed too or why after all they have to leave. The teenagers stay with people they hardly know and not to forget: the war has just ended and the memories of the bombings are still fresh. How could ever parents do such a thing? It becomes even more infuriating when they find their mother’s luggage which she obviously didn’t take with her. It takes some time to figure out the mother’s real role and thus to understand her behaviour. This is also when the novel becomes the most interesting.
This is also where Michael Ondaatje’s virtuosity becomes evident: none of the characters, no matter how random he or she seemed, was introduced without a reason and they all have their specific role in the novel. It all makes sense and culminates in much greater questions than the nucleus of a single family we are presented with at first can ever offer: how far would you go for your country? What are you willing to sacrifice? And it clearly shows that the two categories of “good” and “bad” are simply inadequate for the world we are living in.
"In a curious time in English history, many talented women, women who wanted to be a part of the world, gave their skill and risked their lives to help defeat the German invasion. Ondaatje provides one example of how strange this life must have been for the children of those underground intelligence heroes, a life separated from parents, being raised with by guardians instead of loved ones."
Nathaniel and his sister Rachel live a strange teenage life filled with characters called the Moth and the Darter. As Nathaniel begins to enjoy the adventures that the Darter has to offer and enjoy an early love of a girl , his sister is angrier and more distant. The novel gets better as the narrative begins to go back in time to his mother's connections to the boy who fell from their roof and to her role in undercover operations during and after WW II. Loved the writing and challenge of staying with this journey, crafted by a great writer. Highly recommend.
Then, after a very dramatic sequence, the plot moves forward about ten years. Nathaniel is now an adult and his job allows him access to records that help him piece together long-ago events. The narrative moves back and forth in time, revealing small details from that post-war period and then returning to Nathaniel’s early adulthood. The reader’s fog begins to lift, but not entirely.
I’m not sure what to make of this book. The writing was evocative, and the characters -- especially The Darter -- were memorable. But the pace and suspense did not match the plot developments, and at the end I was left with a feeling of “is that all there is?”
Michael Ondaatje's prose is often exquisite. This novel, set in London in the immediate aftermath of WWII, is the story of 16-year-old Nathaniel who is left, along with his older sister, in the care of a shady and mysterious man they nickname The Moth. His parents' whereabouts is unknown as is the reason for their departure. Nathaniel and Rachel each navigate this odd circumstance differently but they both find ways to fill the parental void. In later years, Nathaniel is working in the national archives and he is able to learn some, but not all, about his parents' involvement in post-war espionage. The archives, along with his memory, serve as an escort through years shrouded in half-light and fog. The Moth and other characters are memorable; my favorite, and Nathaniel's favorite, is The Darter, a former boxer who navigates the back alleys and waterways of the nighttime city with poise and courage. The mood of the novel is also memorable and, along with the beauty of the prose, it is this palpable mood that sets the novel apart. I admit that I wanted the suspense to be more palpable. I wanted more visceral tension. I wanted the plot to assert itself a bit more. But other than that, this is a lovely read.
For readers familiar with Michael Ondaatje’s distinctive style, it will come as no surprise that this story is not unveiled in a straightforward, linear way. The first half of the book concentrates on Nathaniel’s post-war life in the care of two men who may well be criminals, while the second part reconstructs his mother Rose’s wartime activities by way of the son’s mostly passive attempts to find the truth. Throughout the story, however, the author frequently shifts the perspective forward or backward in time and uses foreshadowing to create an effective sense of foreboding. He also introduces the reader to a dizzying array of different characters, all of whom have a purpose and figure into the ultimate resolution of the novel.
I have long been a big fan of Ondaatje’s work, as much for his poetic, lyrical writing style as for the intricate and engaging stories he tells. While Warlight did not quite approach the absolute best of what the author has produced in the past—The English Patient remains one of my very favorite novels—I nevertheless found it to be a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking reading experience. There is a great line that appears toward the end of the book that summarizes so much of what the story is about: “Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?” For both Rose and Nathaniel, this question is resolved, even if their respective answers are not the ones they might have wanted.
It is 1945, and the war in Europe has only recently ended. Two young British teens have been told that they are going to be cared for by a guardian since their father, emotionally damaged by the war, has gotten a better job and will be moving to, and working in, Singapore. Their mother Ruth Williams tells them that she will join him there. It will be for a year. She packs meticulously.
The teenaged children, one 14 and one almost 16, Nathaniel and Rachel, have misgivings about their new caretaker, a large man whom they nickname the Moth. His friends and lifestyle make them think that he is not what he pretends to be, and is perhaps, instead, mixed up in something nefarious. As all sorts of people begin arriving at their home, they are drawn into a world of illicit activity. Why they wonder, would their parents choose such a guardian for them? Still, as time passes, they begin to warm to the Moth and another man they call the Darter.
When they discover that their mother’s trunk is in the basement and realize it had never been shipped to Asia, they have many unanswered questions. The teens do not understand why their mother and father would choose to leave them behind and not remain in touch with them. Where was their mother if her trunk was in the basement? They wonder if either of their parents was still alive.
As the story moves very deliberatively and subtly toward the discovery of the reasons behind their abandonment, it is Nathaniel who is the more interested sibling. He wants to know more about his mother’s wartime past. As he grows more inquisitive, his sister grows angrier and more estranged from their mother. Events have occurred which have scarred her emotionally, even as they piqued her brother’s interest. As they were forced to both grow up under these odd circumstances, they witnessed things that they did not understand.
As the novel progresses, and their mother returns, hints and tidbits are repetitively revealed throughout the narrative. As more than a decade passes, very slowly and methodically, certain ideas recur in the story, they connect with each other to explain Ruth Williams past and her involvement in the British intelligence service. Now an adult, Nathaniel realizes, a bit late, that his mother’s life was, and still, may be in danger. His sister Rachel does not care or want to know anything further about her.
There are many interesting characters in the book, but they and the timeline are sometimes difficult to keep track of, which indicates to me that a print book would be far better than an audio, although in this case, the narrator did a perfectly stellar job reading it, without getting in the way of the story. Although, in the end, all of the characters are in some way connected, it seems almost unintentionally, as their connection is revealed through a series of memories and coincidences which occur as the years pass, the reader discovers that all of the characters were not exactly what they appeared to be, at first. They all seemed to have double identities, double lives. The discovery of their backgrounds and purposes in the novel, made it that much more interesting. For myself, I wondered, what exactly did the author have in mind as the purpose for the book.
1-Would I have been happier if it had been more clear cut in its presentation or was the indirectness of the narrative what actually made it so interesting?
2-Was the book’s purpose to show the futility of war and the unending hate and desire for revenge that continues even after?
3-Was it an effort to show that ordinary people could be heroes or villains, depending on whose eyes perceived them or what they themselves chose to be?
4-Was it to show how certain events influenced the lives of each of the characters and framed their futures?
I must admit, I was not very sure, about the answers to any of my questions, but I did enjoy the story for the sake of the story itself and the fact that it left me thinking was a testament to it, as well.
In my opinion, this book will make a very interesting movie.
In my review of Snap, I ranted a bit about my dislike for the modern crime novel. Mysteries in general are very boring to me. I don't care about the crime. Well, guess what? Spy stories are a chore too. But I won't bore you with more on that...
I was looking forward to Warlight. Aside from a poetry collection, I haven't read the work of Michael Ondaatje before. I expected good things. But from page one, I found this novel lacking. The novel is split into two part: before “revelation” and after. The two parts felt like two different stories stylistically. The first part was a bit more coming-of-age story and I was curious where it was going. But I never quite felt invested in the story. I failed to understand Nathaniel, our protagonist. I never developed a connection with him, who seemed more like a means to tell the story than as a character in it. This is especially true in the second half as the story follows Nathaniel into adulthood, but never gives a clear picture of who Nathaniel is at this point. The story is painfully non-chronological, which is necessary for the storyline, but jarring for the reader. Further, Nathaniel as narrator becomes lost in the story. Suddenly, his story opens up to include details and perspectives he could not know. Have we switched to an omniscient narrator? Are these just possibilities Nathaniel is considering? It's not quite clear and this, along with a time line that's all over the place, makes for a novel that was not pleasurable to read.
And then there's all the espionage talk. Slog.
On a positive note, there are some wonderful scenes and finely crafted moments, particularly in the first half of the novel. I didn't care for Nathaniel as a character, but I did appreciate his relationship with Rachel, his relationship with The Darter and with Agnes. Nathaniel has a gentle and unique perspective of others, but this perspective doesn't translate to the larger story. The result is a rather dry narrative.
I'd expected more from my first real outing with Ondaatje, but I'll certainly return to the author. As for this novel, I wasn't impressed. The characters largely failed to pull me in and the plot wasn't strong enough to lift this plot-driven tale.
I found the relaying of the story to be very dream-like, jumping back and forth into different times, sometimes repeating recollections from an adolescent perspective, then, with hindsight, from an adult perspective.
I felt like the novel finished without any real resolution (of knowing the full story of Nathaniel's mother's war time activities).
"In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals." Michael Ondaatje - Warlight
The book moves on in time fairly quickly from that point, but the secrets that have been kept are unfolded much less precipitously and are brought out into the open, one by one, near the end of the book. Each revealed secret answers questions about the characters and their lives that arose in the beginning of the book. This is how Michael Ondaatje weaves a story, and he does it brilliantly. It's the most masterful "smoke in mirrors" fiction writing that I've ever encountered. This is a truly magnificent novel, so masterfully written that it's like waking from a dream when you close the covers of the book at the end. What a fantastic novel to finish off my truly wonderful year of reading!
Michael Ondaatje has written a cloudy, atmospheric novel, where events are half-remembered and people's identities are uncertain. The writing is just beautiful. As Nathaniel moves through his memories, the second half turns into his suppositions based on what he has learned, pulling together disparate details to form a narrative about the people who were in his life during those years.