Michael Ondaatje never writes an ordinary book, at least in my estimation. His books put me in a reverie of unique experiences lived in far off places and times. In his novel, Warlight he writes of some of the people of England and London who performed secret services all over Europe and the Baltic states during World War II. These services had to be kept so discreet that it is difficult for these members of the intelligence service to reenter their prewar lives.
Wars don’t end on the day that a treaty is made. The hurts, the resentments, the losses stay with people affected by wars. People swear to avenge their loved ones from cruel strikes perhaps necessitated by war, but still seen as desecrations. Strategy may deem it appropriate to level a village but the relatives and friends or absent residents cannot rationalize. They carry their shock with them and they nurse their anger and they vow they will seek retribution.
When first their dad and then their mom leave, Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel are in their early teens. They think their mom has gone to Singapore to be with their dad who was sent there by his company, until they discover her carefully packed trunk in the basement of the family home in London.
These two have been left in the care of a man called The Moth, a rather lackadaisical caretaker, and all that was orderly about their lives falls away. Rachel (nicknamed Wren by her mother) learns that she has epilepsy and of course she is a girl so what she experiences is quite different from what Nathaniel is allowed to get involved with. The Moth is soon joined by another character, The Darter.
Nathaniel is allowed to work with the immigrant staff overseen by Moth at Criterion’s Banquet Halls, setting up for events and washing dishes. Later he helps The Darter smuggle greyhounds into unsanctioned race tracks through keeping a schedule of nighttime pickups at various stops along a network of rivers and streams near London. Nathaniel is the narrator of Warlight but he does not know why his mom left him and his sister with these strange guardians.
As a grown man Nathaniel (who was nicknamed Stitch by his mother, Rose), is offered a job going through the archives collected during World War II, and although he has been reunited with his mother, her continued secrecy prods him to take the job. He begins to learn about what his mom did during the war and how it has followed her home, why she feels she endangers her own children. With great detail Ondaatje creates a world of lives lived outside the mainstream, interesting but slightly dodgy lives. Rose’s caretaker picks prove wiser than they seem.
Ondaatje reminds us that the human memory is long and that there are rarely clear demarcations between one event and the next, in fact the more complex and heartrending events leave traces that may never quite go away. He teaches us that life, like certain passages in music has moments that can best be described by a term Mahler uses to mark a passage that is difficult or heavy. Life can be schwer. I think you will love learning Rose’s story along with Nathaniel, and how it intertwines with that of Marsh Felon, a thatcher’s son who once fell off the family’s roof and had to mend on a cot in their kitchen. And just to add a bit more mystery, you will find out about Viola and many more ordinary heroes.
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