Michael Ondaatje was in the news recently for winning the Golden Man Booker Award for The English Patient (1992) which I loved. This got me curious about his new book, Warlight, and I was vividly reminded again of the power of Ondaatje’s storytelling and his exquisite way with words.
In 1945, Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents announce that they will be leaving to go to Singapore. They have decided that since things are still unsettled and dangerous even though the war has ended that the children will remain in England, attend boarding school and come home only during holidays, where a friend of the family would be taking care of things while they were gone. Nathaniel recounts his reaction to this strange announcement as follows:
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. As to whether The Moth’s criminality was evident to them, we were not sure.
Written from Nathaniel’s perspective,dozens of years after these events, he tries to reconstruct what he remembers of this strange and disconcerting time in his life. What he begins to realize is that our memories are ephemeral things, allowing us to remember some things very clearly and while others with hardly any detail at all. Even more disconcerting is the the fact that how we remember things can be very different from how others do, leading to very different conclusions about what happened. As Nathaniel tries to reconstruct this pivotal moment in his childhood, he begins to see that his parents, his sister and even The Moth and the other eccentric people who entered their lives during this period, were not who he thought they were and the incidents that occurred were of much more significance that he could have possibly imagined.
Ondaatje is a master at creating atmosphere and suspense. As our story unfolds we see that the memory of a 14 year old is spotty at best and often unreliable. As Nathaniel begins to investigate he finds that what he didn’t know and could not have known at the time throws these events into a vastly different light than the way he remembers them. Yet our memories and our impressions create feelings and emotions around these events, giving them meaning and creating a basis for the decisions that we make later in life. It is this tension- the way Nathaniel feels about what happened and the slow revelation of what actually happened, that Ondaatje holds so masterfully and it is what keeps us engaged until the very last paragraph.
Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)
Recommend this book to: Sharon, Marian, Lauren and Keith
Book Study Worthy? Yes!
Read in ebook format.