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Novels about the experience of war often feature decimated landscapes and horrific violence. They also may focus on loss and alienation, trauma and disillusionment. In WARLIGHT, Michael Ondaatje eschews the first in favor of the second as he tells the story of a man grappling with the way World War II changed his family and the shadowy and unusual dangers they faced.

In 1945 London, when he was just 14 years old, Nathaniel Williams’ parents left him and his 16-year-old sister, Rachel, in the care of a stranger nicknamed The Moth while they went to Singapore for a year. There is little about their parents’ absence that makes sense, but Nathaniel and Rachel do their best to adjust and even come to trust and rely on The Moth and another enigmatic figure they call The Darter. The children hear nothing from their parents and settle into the strange rhythm of life with the men and women who come and go from their home.

The siblings pull away from each other: Rachel to her interest in theater, and Nathaniel to his first love, a teenage girl named Agnes. One winter night, the facade of domestic peace is destroyed when an attempted kidnapping ends in tragedy. It is on this night that their mother, Rose, returns to their lives. Still, it will be over a decade before Nathaniel learns where she went and why, and who The Moth and The Darter really were.

"Ondaatje’s prose is highly literary. Slow at times but always lovely and thoughtful, WARLIGHT takes some time to coalesce."

As a young adult, parentless and lacking any real relationship with his sister, Nathaniel finds himself working for the government in a capacity that allows him to learn about his mother’s wartime work. He has little to go on, as Rose’s work was classified and his knowledge about her is ephemeral. But to understand his abandonment, his formative time with The Moth and The Darter, his sister’s distance, and his mother’s life and death, Nathaniel continues to seek out and imagine answers to his questions.

For Nathaniel and the others, the war is not primarily about bombs and combat, though they experience violence and loss of their own. The war sets the stage for intrigue and work that can never be fully known by these two children so dramatically impacted. Nathaniel and Rachel not only must survive the war as those around them did, but also must navigate waters muddied by their parents and by the unusual men and women sent to watch over them. These characters embody types that could have become cartoonish at the pen of a lesser writer. Thankfully, Ondaatje presents them with nuance and care.

Ondaatje’s prose is highly literary. Slow at times but always lovely and thoughtful, WARLIGHT takes some time to coalesce. The first part of the novel, which tells of the time the siblings spent apart from their mother, carefully moves toward what in hindsight seems to be an inevitable event. The latter sections, where Nathaniel is trying to piece together the story of his family and the mystery of his mother, are more successful and give belated foundation to the earlier parts. As if by the titular warlights, Nathaniel’s story is guided by just the occasional scrap of information --- hazy and obscure. His mother intended to protect him, but her methods meant that he always lacked the necessary illumination and that his own story remained dark and dimly lit, even to himself.

WARLIGHT is a beautiful book, yet readers may share Nathaniel’s frustrations as he searches for his unknowable mother.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on May 11, 2018

by Michael Ondaatje

  • Publication Date: April 2, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0525562966
  • ISBN-13: 9780525562962