There are high expectations for the latest novel from the man who wrote the best book of the last 50 years, according to the Man Booker. It’s not The English Patient that stole my heard though, but The Skin of The Lion, Divisadero, Coming Through The Slaughter. So I fell upon Michael Ondaatje‘s newest, Warlight, with a full heart and expecting a reckoning.
This is a shadowed, beguiling novel, setting the wild and wonderful recklessness of adolescence against the turmoil of post-war England. It is 1945, and London is recovering and reeling from the years of war. Fourteen year old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel are unexpectedly abandoned by their parents and left in the care of the enigmatic boarder known as The Moth. Surrounded by him and his collection of friends who have a shared and unknowable history but are determined to somehow educate and care for Nathaniel and Rachel, the children become more convinced and less concerned about their likely criminality. They are not who they claim to be, but how much can that matter to the siblings in this new world?
Through an arrogant freedom of youth, Nathaniel and Rachel are able to ignore uncertain signs of danger around them. Twelve yeas later, Nathaniel sets out to piece together some kind of truth – through recollection, imagining, grasping. The story he uncovers is something he could not see himself at the time and takes the narrative into a morally ambivalent and secret world.
The backdrop of the country recovering from the war while Nathaniel reels around in his teenage boyhood is a beautiful mirroring of growth and discovery: it is an uncertain time for both London and the boy. There is so much not known. There is also a surprising desire within the pages, rarely written of in such a beautiful and natural way.
The language, of course, is luminous. Ondaatje manages both poetic evocation and grounded simplicity. It is a joy to tear through the pages but there is discipline required to slow and savour just how he does it. In Warlight, I just love how Nathaniel describes people, full of pathos and longing.
“Hers was the calmest voice I knew when I was a boy. There was never any argument in it. She had just this tactile curiosity about what interested her, and that calmness allowed you to be within her intimate space. In daylight she always caught your eye as she talked or as she listened, she was completely with you. As she was with the two of us that night…we were confident that Olive Lawrence had some tracing in her head from a faint light in the distance or a shift of wind that told her exactly where she was and what she was going towards.”
But there is something just out of reach with this tale – I want to know it more, to hold onto it and revel in it as I have with past Ondaatje books but Warlight slips itself from the readers’ grip. There is this dynamism within its lead character and the narrative itself – it is perfect truth for something to be unknowable, of course, and this makes it both beguiling and frustrating. The language soars and is full of a simple grace, but when an author is shining such a pure and clear light on humanity there will always be elements that evade, skip way, feel fragile and lucky.
Ondaatje’s work possesses beauty and power; literature tuned to a visionary pitch that is both potent and serene. Warlight is a new experience of it: a fine honing. It is graceful, intriguing; genuinely gripping in both plot and poetry of language.