How does one reconcile the differences between ‘postwar’ and ‘life after the war’? Famous Canadian writer and University of Toronto alum Michael Ondaatje attempts to answer this in his most recent novel, Warlight.
Warlight is a story of many shapes and sizes that takes place over many years. Although the novel is set in the context of siblings Nathaniel and Rachel growing up in London after World War II, the effects of that war pervade the lives of the characters throughout.
Above all, the novel is about growing up in a postwar world without the guidance of one’s parents. Nathaniel and Rachel see the world through this absence, informed by their childhood with parents who have left them for Singapore and under the care of a man they name ‘The Moth’ and his band of eccentrics. Growing up without parents is hard for any child, let alone in the shadow of a war under the care of law-skirting individuals.
Although the siblings live with The Moth, The Moth does not raise them. Told from Nathaniel’s perspective, the children essentially raise themselves. But they quickly veer off course and Nathaniel descends into London’s underworld, living a life that he would not have had if his parents were still in London. We unfortunately do not see much of Rachel’s psychology, which I would have liked to know more about. Nevertheless, Nathaniel’s inner musings are compelling enough to lead the story. His meditations on family, the past, childhood, and postwar life are filled with Ondaatje’s signature wisdom.
The story follows Nathaniel into adulthood when he gets recruited by Britain’s Home Office to wade through documents relating to the war. This section of the novel answers a lot of questions about Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents and allows Nathaniel to view his childhood and family from a different perspective.
Ondaatje’s novels like to keep things mysterious and not provide you with answers to the questions that you undoubtedly have. The same is true about Warlight. Nathaniel’s job in espionage is to discover the past, but just like in real life, the more he wades into the past the murkier it gets. Memories, like human beings, are greatly flawed and there are always many sides to a story. This is what Warlight tries to tell us by its end.
Warlight is a great novel by a Canadian master who has honed his craft to a diamond sheen and is well worth reading by fans of literary and Canadian fiction.