Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize
A New York Times Notable Book
A Washington Post Notable Book
An NPR Best Book of the Year
It is 1945, and London is still reeling from years of war. Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, seemingly abandoned by their parents, have been left in the care of an enigmatic figure they call The Moth. They suspect he may be a criminal and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect and educate (in rather unusual ways) the siblings. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And how should Nathaniel and Rachel feel when their mother returns without their father after months of silence—explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand during that time, and it is this journey—through reality, recollection, and imagination—that is told in this magnificent novel.
About the Author
Michael Ondaatje is the author of six previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize in 1992 and the Golden Man Booker in 2018; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Chapter 1
In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. We were living on a street in London called Ruvigny Gardens, and one morning either our mother or our father suggested that after breakfast the family have a talk, and they told us that they would be leaving us and going to Singapore for a year. Not too long, they said, but it would not be a brief trip either. We would of course be well cared for in their absence. I remember our father was sitting on one of those uncomfortable iron garden chairs as he broke the news, while our mother, in a summer dress just behind his shoulder, watched how we responded. After a while she took my sister Rachel’s hand and held it against her waist, as if she could give it warmth.
Neither Rachel nor I said a word. We stared at our father, who was expanding on the details of their flight on the new Avro Tudor I, a descendant of the Lancaster bomber, which could cruise at more than three hundred miles an hour. They would have to land and change planes at least twice before arriving at their destination. He explained he had been promoted to take over the Unilever office in Asia, a step up in his career. It would be good for us all. He spoke seriously and our mother turned away at some point to look at her August garden. After my father had finished talking, seeing that I was confused, she came over to me and ran her fingers like a comb through my hair.
I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen, and they told us we would be looked after in the holidays by a guardian, as our mother called him. They referred to him as a colleague. We had already met him—we used to call him “The Moth,” a name we had invented. Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises. Rachel had already told me she suspected he worked as a criminal.
The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war; so what had been suggested did not feel unusual. We accepted the decision, as children do, and The Moth, who had recently become our third-floor lodger, a humble man, large but moth-like in his shy movements, was to be the solution. Our parents must have assumed he was reliable. As to whether The Moth’s criminality was evident to them, we were not sure.
I suppose there had once been an attempt to make us a tightly knit family. Now and then my father let me accompany him to the Unilever offices, which were deserted during weekends and bank holidays, and while he was busy I’d wander through what seemed an abandoned world on the twelfth floor of the building. I discovered all the office drawers were locked. There was nothing in the wastepaper baskets, no pictures on the walls, although one wall in his office held a large relief map depicting the company’s foreign locations. Mombasa, the Cocos Islands, Indonesia. And nearer to home, Trieste, Heliopolis, Benghazi, Alexandria, cities that cordoned o the Mediterranean, locations I assumed were under my father’s authority. Here was where they booked holds on the hundreds of ships that travelled back and forth to the East. The lights on the map that identified those cities and ports were unlit during the weekends, in darkness much like those far outposts.
At the last moment it was decided our mother would remain behind for the final weeks of the summer to oversee the arrangements for the lodger’s care over us, and ready us for our new boarding schools. On the Saturday before he flew alone towards that distant world, I accompanied my father once more to the office near Curzon Street. He had suggested a long walk, since, he said, for the next few days his body would be humbled on a plane. So we caught a bus to the Natural History Museum, then walked up through Hyde Park into Mayfair. He was unusually eager and cheerful, singing the lines Homespun collars, homespun hearts, Wear to rags in foreign parts, repeating them again and again, almost jauntily, as if this was an essential rule. What did it mean? I wondered. I remember we needed several keys to get into the building where the office he worked in took up that whole top floor. I stood in front of the large map, still unlit, memorizing the cities that he would y over during the next few nights. Even then I loved maps. He came up behind me and switched on the lights so the mountains on the relief map cast shadows, though now it was not the lights I noticed so much as the harbours lit up in pale blue, as well as the great stretches of unlit earth. It was no longer a fully revealed perspective, and I suspect that Rachel and I must have watched our parents’ marriage with a similar awed awareness. They had rarely spoken to us about their lives. We were used to partial stories. Our father had been involved in the last stages of the earlier war, and I don’t think he felt he really belonged to us.
As for their departure, it was accepted that she had to go with him: there was no way, we thought, that she could exist apart from him—she was his wife. There would be less calamity, less collapse of the family if we were left behind as opposed to her remaining in Ruvigny Gardens to look after us. And as they explained, we could not suddenly leave the schools into which we had been admitted with so much difficulty. Before his departure we all embraced our father in a huddle, The Moth having tactfully disappeared for the weekend.
So we began a new life.
The Moth, our third-floor lodger, was absent from the house most of the time, though sometimes he arrived early enough to be there for dinner. He was encouraged now to join us, and only after much waving of his arms in unconvincing protest would he sit down and eat at our table. Most evenings, however, The Moth strolled over to Bigg’s Row to buy a meal. Much of the area had been destroyed during the Blitz, and a few street barrows were temporarily installed there. We were always conscious of his tentative presence, of his alighting here and there. We were never sure if this manner of his was shyness or listlessness. That would change, of course. Sometimes from my bedroom window I’d notice him talking quietly with our mother in the dark garden, or I would find him having tea with her. Before school started she spent quite a bit of time persuading him to tutor me in mathematics, a subject I had consistently failed at school, and would in fact continue to fail again long after The Moth stopped trying to teach me. During those early days the only complexity I saw in our guardian was in the almost three-dimensional drawings he created in order to allow me to go below the surface of a geometry theorem.
If the subject of the war arose, my sister and I attempted to coax a few stories from him about what he had done and where. It was a time of true and false recollections, and Rachel and I were curious. The Moth and my mother referred to people they both were familiar with from those days. It was clear she knew him before he had come to live with us, but his involvement with the war was a surprise, for The Moth was never “war-like” in demeanour. His presence in our house was usually signalled by quiet piano music coming from his radio, and his current profession appeared linked to an organization involving ledgers and salaries. Still, after a few promptings we learned that both of them had worked as “fire watchers” in what they called the Bird’s Nest, located on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel. We sat in our pyjamas drinking Horlicks as they reminisced. An anecdote would break the surface, then disappear. One evening, soon before we had to leave for our new schools, my mother was ironing our shirts in a corner of the living room, and The Moth was standing hesitant at the foot of the stairs, about to leave, as if only partially in our company. But then, instead of leaving, he spoke of our mother’s skill during a night drive, when she had delivered men down to the coast through the darkness of the curfew to something called “the Berkshire Unit,” when all that kept her awake “were a few squares of chocolate and cold air from the open windows.” As he continued speaking, my mother listened so carefully to what he described that she held the iron with her right hand in midair so it wouldn’t rest on and burn a collar, giving herself fully to his shadowed story.
I should have known then.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1945, just after World War II, fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his sixteen-year-old sister Rachel are left in the care of their mysterious boarder when their parents move to Singapore for their father’s new job. In their parents’ absence, Nathaniel and Rachel live a seemingly idyllic life, full of eccentric characters, illicit adventures, and secret romances. But all is not as it seems, and danger is lurking just around the corner. Later, as an adult, Nathaniel takes a job with the Foreign Office, where he tries to uncover the secrets of his mother’s wartime past and learns more than he bargained for. The novel begins with a great opening line: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” What follows is a series of vignettes describing the incidents that shape Nathaniel’s life. His childhood stories are recounted by an adult Nathaniel in the manner of a memoir, complete with lapses of memory and the inability to recall certain details. “You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.” When he later attempts to piece together the puzzle which is his mother’s life, it’s interesting to see how he interprets these events differently with the benefit of hindsight. Seemingly insignificant incidents from his childhood - such as the radio program his mother listens to, or the route he travels on through the city – take on a whole new meaning when new information comes to light. “We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken […] sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete …” Nathaniel also tells us stories about his mother and the people she was involved with – things that he could not possibly know. “I had not been told anything, but […] I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth. In retrospect the grains of sand had always been there …” Throughout the book, the author reveals the depth of his research, giving us a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of the working class, as well as glimpses into the secret world of wartime espionage. This charming coming-of-age story morphs into a spy mystery and an ode to those unsung heroes of the war. “There were so many like her, who were content in the modesty of their wartime skills.” It is also a poignant reflection on how our lives are determined by the things that happen to us in our youth. Nathaniel is very much a product of his unorthodox upbringing. “What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here.” I just wish we had learned more about Rachel and the impact that these same events had on her life. Warnings: sexual references, coarse language, sex scenes. Full blog post: https://www.booksdirectonline.com/2018/12/warlight-by-michael-ondaatje.html
I liked this book very much, but for the life of me I'm not sure why. Unusual characters in an unusual situation; not really relatable, but surprisingly enjoyable.
Warlight is defined as the ambient light that guided people during the London blackouts. Michael Ondaatje has aptly named his noir novel: the light on his subjects is at best shadowy. The narrator of this tale is a young teen who, with his older sister, was abandoned by his parents after the war. The father was sent to Singapore for a year to work. Nathaniel tells his story in retrospect, and the reveals are mysterious and sometimes scant. Ondaatje dwells not only on the ravages of war but also the horrible collateral damage inflicted. In this case the scars were not just on war-torn London, but on the hearts of the two teenagers. Their parents left them under the supervision of their boarder, whom the children suspect of being a criminal. The characters who dropped in and out of their lives could have come from a Dickens novel. Their education was expanded far beyond their boarding schools’ curriculums. And secrets begin to leak about their mother—where was she, why has she not come back? The second half of this book is about Nathaniel as an adult, searching for the lost parts of his life. He goes to work for the government in a low-level job in British intelligence and begins trying to piece together his mother’s story. His inner conflict with his mother maps his life and it darkens his ability to interact with others. Nathaniel is indeed collateral damage from war. “You return to that earlier time armed with the present, no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing. Unless of course, you wish, like my sister, to damn and enact revenge on the whole pack of them.” This book is excellent on so many levels. Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, his metaphors sing. Give yourself time for this book, savor the sounds and smells, hear the birds and crickets, listen to the waves “scalloping” against the side of the boat. And empathize with the lives so broken.
As I listened to this novel, I think that the audio of this novel enhanced it. As the narrator presented the tale, his tone added depth to the narration and I felt a darkness covering the whole novel. Since I am a huge fan of historical fiction, I really enjoyed this novel. I immediately got caught up in the lives of Rachel and Nathaniel and the mystery surrounding their family and the war. I was intrigued with The Moth. The Moth, what a name. When Rachel’s and Nathaniel’s parents took off, they left their children in the care of a man the children called The Moth. I had a few questions, right from the beginning. First, who was this man? And then, what was so important that both parents had to leave and they couldn’t take their children? I found The Moth to be an individual who cared deeply about the children but who had business of his own to do while caring for the children. The Moth, a mysterious man, brought many stealthy individuals into the children’s lives while he cared for them. I could understand the children’s excitement when they started working the dogs for them, but I wondered what would happen, if something went wrong. Rachel and Nathaniel were curious about the disappearance of their parents as they stayed with The Moth. It seemed to me, that Nathaniel was more interested than Rachel in his parent’s whereabouts. As the novel jumps forward in time, we find Nathaniel getting an opportunity to work for the Intelligence Service. With restricted documents within reach, Nathaniel ceases this opportunity to do some research of his own, on his parents, especially his mother. Nathaniel is trying to piece together their lives. It was time-consuming but, in the end, Nathaniel finds exactly what he is looking for. And, Nathaniel helps answer a question for me. There were times I thought the novel dragged on a bit but I enjoyed the narrator’s voice and I never thought about quitting. I liked how Nathaniel dug into the lives of his parents, his inquiry and tact. I think his mother led quite an incredible life.
Great writing; great character development; great descriptions. The story left me cold.
This was a slightly disappointing read for me. I'm not sure why or what I expected.