By: Michael Ondaatje
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself, shadowed and luminous at once: we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel.
But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings’ mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing?
A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn’t know and understand in that time, and it is this journey–through facts, recollection, and imagination–that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.
I’ve been eyeing this book since it was first released and then longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018: aside from its rather mysterious book covers, the premise sounded interesting and promised to be unique. I finally picked it up a while ago for my Kobo and read it rather recently.
Warlight sifts through Nathaniel’s memory growing up from the time his mother left him and his sister with other people and about these people they grew up around. There’s much mystery as to who these people are and how are they related to their parents; people who know about their childhoods, who have different names. Eventually their mother’s story is interwoven and a shading of the truth as to what she really did comes to the fore.
Nathaniel was an okay character; this book was a kind of coming of age story for him as much of his story revolves around the mystery of his mother and the time she was absent from their lives. But I found his sister Rachel to be far more interesting and would have gladly followed her as the main character; I was more interested in the fury she felt towards her mother, how she coped, what she felt, not to mention dealing with her own health as she would be struck by seizures on occasion. I wanted to know more about what was going through her head.
I felt this book to be a rather disjointed read, one part Nathaniel’s childhood, one part coming to terms with his mother’s disappearance. I’ve read books before that flowed by memory, but there was something about this book that didn’t feel as cohesive as I felt it could have been. It’s hard to describe, like something was missing in the story. I also wished we saw a bit more of the dad and his experiences; the war clearly affected him in an extreme matter but it seemed as though he had no lasting impression on Nathaniel’s life and I was left curious as to why that was the case.
Overall Warlight was interesting in that it focuses on the fallout of World War Two from the children’s standpoint, those who were left behind. I felt this book could’ve been so much more though.