The dimmed lights that guided emergency vehicles during London’s wartime blackouts were known as warlight; this titular image sets the melancholy mood for Michael Ondaatje’s haunting new novel, which takes place in the years following the Second World War. Ondaatje’s latest is more sombre and brooding than its predecessor, The Cat’s Table, which was characterized by a buoyant exuberance and a limpid tone. In Warlight, Ondaatje penetrates the complexities of trauma resulting from war. The central figures are teenage brother and sister Nathaniel and Rachel. Rounding out the cast are the siblings’ mother and father and a rogue’s gallery of supporting characters who fill the role of guardians after the parents abandon their children.
In 1945, Nathaniel and Rachel are living in London. When their parents depart suddenly for Singapore, the siblings are left in the care of two men who may be criminals. These are a third-floor lodger, nicknamed the Moth because of his “tentative presence … alighting here and there,” and his friend the Darter, an ex-boxer and greyhound smuggler.
Though their father has been a distant figure, Nathaniel and Rachel are both deeply attached to their mother. Before her departure, a steamer trunk is brought out of the basement and, in a deliberate ritual, she packs her belongings, explaining to her children why she will need a particular frock or shawl, or the British fiction and maps she most likely won’t find in the East. Observing their mother pack leaves Nathaniel and Rachel feeling even more bereft. As if to underscore this, Ondaatje likens the steamer to a casket: “It was almost as if we expected her to climb into that black wooden trunk, so much like a coffin with those brass corner edges, and be deported away from us.”
During their first winter without their parents, the siblings make a discovery that calls into question both the whereabouts of their mother and the parents’ story about having found employment in the East – a betrayal that destroys the adolescents’ innocence and trust. Nathaniel and Rachel’s search for their missing mother – “who always had a printless foot” – forms the emotional core of Warlight.
Nathaniel is quiet, distant, and admits that he “buries things”; as a result, his narrative voice is rather detached. Yet there are moments at which Nathaniel’s story is lit by flares of passion: when he meets his lover, Agnes; when he helps the Darter – who becomes an unlikely father figure – smuggle greyhounds for illegal dog races; and when he hurls a plate at a wall and grazes his mother’s forehead. These powerful moments are like electric shocks in the otherwise impassive narration.
Warlight possesses many of Ondaatje’s signature strengths: indelible images and a deep exploration of memory’s mindscape. What does one remember and what does one forget? What is illuminated and what remains in shadow? As a teenager, for example, Nathaniel tells the Moth he doesn’t like cats. The Moth reminds him he had a cat that he loved as a young boy. The cat’s howling spooked Nathaniel’s father, however, who suffered a fear of sudden noises as a result of the war. Driven mad by the cat’s yowling, Nathaniel’s father killed it one night. As a teenager, Nathaniel has no distinct memory of this trauma; he has revised it instead into a general distaste for cats.
As with many a Dickensian orphan, parental absence provides narrative opportunity as well as crisis for Ondaatje’s siblings, who find themselves entering “a borderless terrain between adolescence and adulthood.” Also resembling Dickens, it is at the hands of their unconventional guardians and life itself, rather than through traditional education, that Nathaniel and Rachel learn about the world around them.
Nathaniel has his first sexual experiences with Agnes, whom he meets for assignations in various abandoned houses. In a wildly original scene, Nathaniel releases the greyhounds in his care into an empty building:
[N]ow in the large semi-dark rooms of this borrowed house, we wrestled them to the ground, their long mouths warm against our bare hearts. We raced from one room to another, avoiding street-lit windows, signalling each other with whistles. One dog was caught simultaneously in both her and my arms.
A violent crisis erupts midway through the novel; the latter half of the book is taken up by revelations about the mother’s life and work, while their divergent responses to parental abandonment force Nathaniel and Rachel to grow apart. As he ages into manhood, Nathaniel wrestles with the irony that his mother’s actions during and after the war resulted in a familial wound that may never heal. Warlight is his journey to piece together who his absent mother was, in order to better understand himself and become whole once again.