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.
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
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. (Continues…)
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.
More than 1 year ago
Great writing; great character development; great descriptions. The story left me cold.
11 months ago
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
More than 1 year ago
This was a slightly disappointing read for me. I'm not sure why or what I expected.
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
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.