by Michael Ondaatje
In Warlight, Michael Ondaatje has crafted a beautiful and restrained meditation on memory. How people construct their pasts in the face of faulty recollection has always been a theme that has interested me, and this novel places that question in the confusing post-war period in London where Nathaniel Williams comes to realize “wars are never over.”
Nathaniel and his sister Rachel are left in the care of their mother’s associate whom they nickname the “Moth” when their parents leave for Singapore for a year. But not long after their departure, Rachel finds their Mother’s steamer truck in the basement. The year passes and they don’t hear from their Mother, but their world is populated by the Moth’s associates, notably Olive Laurence and Norman Marshall, “The Darter,” the latter whom involves the siblings in illicit activities yet still becomes a father figure to Nathaniel.
Halfway through the novel, Nathaniel, at twenty-eight, tries to reconstruct his mother’s life, confident “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.” His parents’ absence affected him greatly. As a child, he drew maps of his neighborhood trying to anchor himself in place. When he works for the solid Sam Malakite as a teenager, Nathaniel takes great comfort in his reliability and exactitude. Insofar as maps represent a settled narrative of the past, the war disturbed them. Cities were removed from maps of England for their protection, villages were “wiped off the map” after battles, and the borders of countries on maps were redrawn after the war. An additional layer of obfuscation stymied Nathaniel’s quest for truth since his mother deliberately cultivated secrecy, asserting that covertness was at times necessary, even going so far as giving Nathaniel and Rachel code names, Stitch and Wren, respectively. But through his efforts, he forges a version of the path, at least one possible truth, and in his search for his mother, he finds out a shocking truth about his own past.
Although I certainly admired Warlight and its mastery, I did not always enjoy reading the novel at times and was particularly distressed at the matter-of-fact, sometimes even proud, manner in which characters responded to greyhound smuggling and race fixing (though Nathaniel was somewhat redeemed in my eyes when he adopted a greyhound in later life). Both Olive Laurence and Nathaniel’s mother, Rose Williams, enjoy fabulous careers that contributed to England’s war effort, but the book doesn’t explore the challenges they must have faced as women in male-dominated fields. Perhaps this is due to the narrow perspective Nathaniel brings to the women’s pasts, but it seemed like a lost opportunity to me. Three characters are described as “inhaling” experience; this didn’t necessarily seem thematic so it felt more like sloppy repetition than a motif.
But I did love the way Ondaatje discusses memory and its distillation in the present. Also of note were the repeating symbols of the natural world. I particularly enjoyed the aside about sea-peas that flourished during the war because their habitat was mined and therefore avoided by humans. Additionally, as Nathaniel tries to built his past, governments on either side of the conflict try to erase theirs, destroying evidence of nefarious behavior. Still, for both individuals and governments, war ripples into the present, and its effects in the book offer a subtle but convincing indictment of war. Warlight is worth reading, but to fully appreciate it requires attention to its layers. It’s surface simplicity, like warlight, hides the rich details underneath.