Phares, Warlight Review (August 2019)
Michael Ondaatje’s 2018 novel, Warlight, follows the book’s narrator, Nathaniel Williams, on his journey into the past—as he not only probes his own hazy and oblique memories of an adolescence spent in post-World War II London, but attempts to uncover the fragmentary details about the most remote and enigmatic figure in his life: his mother, Rose. At the start of the novel, we are told that in 1945, Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are essentially abandoned by their parents—left in the care of a motley band of nonconformists, petty miscreants, and shadow-dwellers who offer freedom and exhilaration, but little security and virtually no answers to the questions Nathaniel poses: why did his parents leave? why were these criminals chosen as guardians? and, what did his mother do in the war? Warlight is a kind of coming-of-age novel, focusing, as it does, on Nathaniel and Rachel’s formative years. But it is also a thriller and a mystery novel. It is a surprising blend of Charles Dickens, Raymond Chandler, and John le Carré that offers fantastically unique characters operating on the periphery—whether in the seedy criminal underworld or in the files of the security services. But it also has touches of the Gothic, with its emphasis on moody landscape, abandoned spaces, and self-contained worlds. And ghosts do haunt the narrative—but they are specters born of loneliness and longing—and Nathaniel hopes to exorcise the past by dragging them into the light. Ondaatje is probably best known for his Booker-Prize-winning 1992 novel, The English Patient, or for Coming Through Slaughter (1976)—which many consider his masterpiece. Warlight is less experimental, less dense than these works, but it is also more richly textured and more focused on character. While the narrator, Nathaniel, holds his story at a distance, the reader is bidden toward the warmth and radiance of Warlight—and toward a truth that is messy and incomplete, but brilliantly rendered.