Book-In-Focus: Warlight. A Novel by Michael Ondaatje

Bring The Dog Out_The BookWalker

From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of The English Patient: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement. In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself--shadowed and luminous at once—we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they 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, and it is this journey--through facts, recollection, and imagination--that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.

What Readers Say

Opening the pages of "Warlight", the new novel by Michael Ondaatje, is like stepping back to 1945, both because of the setting and because of the elegant prose.Immediately after the war, most of London still in rubble from The Blitz, siblings, Rachel and Nathaniel find themselves largely on their own after their parents decamp to Singapore leaving them under the dubious guardianship of a "friend" whom they call The Moth. Gradually it is revealed through our first-person narrator, Nathaniel, that all is not what it seems. Who is The Moth? Criminal? Spy? Both? What is really going on with their parents?Mary Lin

The word “warlight” suggests a murky shrouded light that serves to only partially and poorly illuminate a tableau, and indeed, this is an apt title for Michael Ondaatje’s latest book. Our narrator is a teenage boy, Nathaniel Williams, who is left, with his slightly older sister Rachel “in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Their mother, Rose, disappears from their lives in 1945, purportedly to engage in some sort of undercover or espionage actions. As a result, they spend their teenage years surrounded by Dickensian characters: a man they refer to as The Moth, a greyhound racer and bon vivant called the Darter, and others who flitter in and out of their lives. It is only in part two, a decade or more later, that a little bit of light is shed. The book, as one might expect from Mr. Ondaatje, is elegantly and lyrically crafted. It’s a pure pleasure to read prose this assured. An ambiance is set that keeps the reader on edge and off balance. Michael Ondaatje takes the all-too-common coming-of-age trope and turns it on its ear, as if he’s a magician pulling mesmerizing scenes out of his hat.

—Jill Shtulman

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