Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: A review

Warlight refers to the dim lights that were used for emergency vehicles' navigation during blackouts in London in World War II. Michael Ondaatje's new novel takes place mostly in London in the years after the war. It is a story hidden in murkiness, camouflage, and intrigue with only the dimmest of lights to guide us through. 

The atmosphere is obviously intentional. The first hundred pages or so are all about atmosphere and it is there that the tone of the book is set. The plot moves with glacial slowness as Ondaatje builds his character studies and begins to hint at the drama to come.

The story begins in 1945 when two children, 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams and his older sister, Rachel, are left by their parents, who are supposedly going to Singapore, in the care of two men. One of the men is the family's upstairs lodger called (by the children) the Moth and the other is his friend, a former boxer known as the Pimlico Darter. The Moth and the Darter thus effectively become the guardians of the children.

Our narrator for this story is Nathaniel. We see everything through his eyes. We know what he knows or learns over the years and nothing else.

The absent father remains a complete cipher. We never really know who he is or what he did during the war, although we may have our suspicions. He never reappears.

The mother, on the other hand, continues to watch over the children from a distance. When Nathaniel finds her steamer trunk that she had packed for their supposed trip in their basement, he realizes she did not go to Singapore. In fact, their mother worked for British Intelligence and was a war hero. In the years after the war, it seems that she is still involved in some Intelligence activities and there are those who want her dead. This is why she has absented herself from the lives of her children, in order to draw the fire of her enemies away from them.

The Moth and the Darter - especially the Darter - prove to be interesting guardians. The Moth takes a fairly sober view of his responsibilities, but the Darter does not balk at involving the children in some of his dubious activities, such as smuggling illegal greyhounds into the country.

Years later, in adulthood, Nathaniel (now working for British Intelligence himself) attempts to uncover the history of what his mother, as well as the Moth and the Darter, did during the war and how those experiences led to the chain of events that broke his family apart.

I had some problems with this novel at least partly because I was reading it while traveling and I was somewhat distracted. It was difficult to focus on the storyline and that was made harder still by Ondaatje's decision to concentrate on building the atmosphere and theme of the book, rather than developing robust characters and plotline. Nevertheless, I think the point of his work, in highlighting the long dark shadow cast by war, a shadow that forever remains on the lives of those who experienced it, is accentuated by the narrative choices that he made.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars     


  1. This is the second book you review lately that I have been checking out previously with the intention of buying and reading, Calypso being the other one. I just saw it listed this afternoon on an Amazon list of the 20 Best Books of the Year so Far, hence my interest. I suspected when I read about the disappearance (and later reappearance) of the mother that she might have been entangled with some intelligence work. You proved me right. Anyways, now thanks to your vetting I want to read it too. Is it too slow though?

    1. The action is slow and it would reward careful reading, which I'm afraid I was not really able to give it. Ondaatje's prose is up to his usual lyrical standard.

  2. I want to read this one too. I just finished The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, about female spies in WWI. Yesterday I started Blackout by Connie Willis, about a time travel department set in Oxford, 2040, who are sending people back to WWII. It's all connected!

    1. It's always illuminating to read books that are interrelated by subject and/or time. One gets differing perspectives which are always helpful in understanding an era. Like your Big Fat Reading Project.


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