- What: Warlight
- Who: Michael Ondaatje
- Pages: 285, hard cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
Everybody loves a good plot twist, myself included. In my review of Rich People Problems, in fact, I praised author Kevin Kwan for his ability to keep you guessing with one curveball after the next, which ensured the book was never dull (among other wonderful qualities). In retrospect, clues had been leading up to these revelations since book one, and nothing felt out of place.
I can’t quite say the same thing about Michael Ondaatje’s 2018 hit, Warlight. What saddens me about this conclusion is that I loved this book up to the ending. Ondaatje’s writing is beautiful and poetic, and it evokes the exact sadness and curiosity the characters feel. Ondaatje paints a mystery yearning to be told. But when he finally reveals the secrets, he does so with a twist too far out of left field that leaves you with a bad impression. Warlight, though exquisite, couldn’t quite close the deal, which is why I can’t quite give it more than three flames.
Europe in the years proceeding World War II didn’t really feel like the war had ended. Spies and danger were still abound, rebuilding was stagnant, and people were coping with extreme losses — of both people and possessions, as well as a sense of purpose. This is the scene Ondaatje sets for us in Warlight.
In 1945, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are abandoned by their parents — who claim to be traveling to Singapore for their father’s work. With so many unanswered questions, they are left in the care of a mysterious man who Rachel and Nathaniel name The Moth. Possibly a criminal, The Moth engages with other suspicious characters who constantly enter and leave their home. They have stories but never say too much, always keeping up a barrier between themselves and the children.
These individuals, though, help raise and influence Nathaniel and Rachel during the few years in which the adults’ lives frequently intersect with the children’s. The Moth’s close friend the Darter, for example, instills in Nathaniel a certain disregard for the rules as he enlists the young teenager in helping transport illegal greyhounds and other contrabands across the country. Then there’s the Darter’s brief romance with Olive Lawrence, whose worldliness and independence intrigue and inspire Nathaniel and Rachel. Despite keeping details at bay, they form meaningful bonds with the kids.
“‘Half the life of cities occurs at night,’ Olive Lawrence warned us. ‘There’s a more uncertain morality then.'” — Warlight
The covert lives of these characters eventually put the kids in danger, which gives us the book’s first rising action. This danger inevitably unveils secrets about Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents, especially their mother, Rose, who has a personal relationship with and influence on the war and those who have been caring for her children. The second half of this book shows Nathaniel attempting to piece together the mystery of his mother, the strangers who raised him, and his own life — the past, present, and future. Rose is the central theme in the latter half, and her stories are begging to be told.
Two things about Warlight will captivate you from the beginning. The first is Ondaatje’s writing style. Warlight was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and for good reason. He doesn’t just give you fiction; he provides elegance that gives you feeling and fulfills you.
“We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time. It is easier to understand the mercurial, unreliable…” — Warlight
See what I mean? Pure poetry.
The second notable quality of Warlight is how Ondaatje sets up an “elegiac thriller,” which is how the Washington Post‘s Anna Mundow characterized this novel. And she’s not wrong. Something doesn’t fit between Nathaniel and his parents, and something doesn’t make sense about all these people he and Rachel are surrounded by. There’s a consistent enigma that sets the tone on every page.
In the midst of uncovering these underlying details and truths and making sense of the past, Nathaniel forgets to keep living his own life. He’s somehow stuck in the past and in his mother’s story — and as readers, we are too. Once her secrets start seeping out, he becomes too concerned with his anger toward her and discovering the truth to remember the world around him.
“The lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out.” — Warlight
This is where the book loses its spark. Suddenly, the story yanks us from Rose’s compelling story and back to Nathaniel’s present for a confusing jolt in plot. Ondaatje steals us and Nathaniel away from piecing together a mystery to finish the story with characters long forgotten. It’s too shocking for the reader when there’s been zero foreshadowing to clue us in.
It’s unclear if Ondaatje is trying to connect all of the characters he’s created or teach us an important lesson about not living in the past. If it’s the former, the connection is poor. And if it’s the latter, he proves his point but at the expense of the alluring narrative that precedes it. It’s a disservice to some truly talented writing, and it’s the disservice that’ll stay with you as you close the book.
“A person who, as the line went, would live in many places and die everywhere.” — Warlight