Warlight refers to the the dim guiding lights that remained on during WWII blackouts. LIke warlight, memories seen from a distance lose their sharpness, but are no less life altering. This was one of those books that left me a little unsatisfied, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There’s no doubt that Ondaatje has a gorgeous, poetic command of language, and, on reflection, I began to appreciate how skillfully he renders the dubious quality of memory. The narrator’s recollections about when his parents left he and his sister in the care of a mysterious boarder whom they call the Moth, have a slightly surreal quality. Told from an adult’s vantage point. some of the characters burn brightly and too briefly, and I wished to know them better, but realized that they were exactly right for what Ondaatje was portraying–the trickiness of memory seen anew through the lens of adult reflection. When Nathaniel finds his mother, Rose’s packed trunk stowed away in the cellar, he realizes that she is not on the holiday on which she claimed to be embarking. The growing questions about who his temporary guardians are and where and who his mother is, frame the remembered episodes in Warlight.
The characters are wonderful in their sketchiness. The Pimlico Darter, named for his former boxing career, is especially colorful as he employs the teen-aged Nathaniel on night time boat rides through the canals of London, smuggling dogs and, perhaps, something more illicit. In the brilliant Olive Lawrence, the “eth-no-graph-er,”Nathaniel finds a surrogate mother, until her short affair the Darter ends. Marsh Felon, who is a radio naturalist and coincidentally suffered a fall while thatching the roof of the Rose’s childhood home is a recurring figure in Rose’s life and is responsible for setting her on the path that takes her away from her children. Individual scenes take on a dreamlike quality– in one Nathaniel makes love to his girlfriend in an abandoned house while greyhounds chase each other through the rooms.
Employed by the British Foreign Office, the adult Nathaniel is in a good position to uncover information from his mother’s past and piece together her story. His nostalgia propels him to a discovery about his own past actions.
While you’re on the waiting list for Warlight, read Ondaatje’s other wonderful novels, Anil’s Ghost, The English Patient (much better than the movie!) and The Cat’s Table, one of the few novels I’ve read twice. He also wrote a novel in verse, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, as well as several books of poetry.