Likely Stories: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Jan 3, 2019

Mysterious story of a family split as World War II came to a conclusion.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I usually have about a month to finish two or three of the long-listed titles for the annual Booker Prize.  This year, Michael Ondaatje was one of my picks, but Warlight did not survive the long list.  He has won the Booker for The English Patient, a fantastic novel made into a fantastic film.  He he has also won the Irish Times International prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis all for Anil’s Ghost.  Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Toronto.

At first, Warlight seemed rather mysterious.  I could best compare him, in my opinion, to John LeCarré author of one of the best spy thrillers if the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  Normally, I am not a fan of spy novels, but Ondaatje and LeCarré are notable exceptions. 

The novel begins, “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 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 tight against her waist, as if she could give it warmth” (5).  Rachel, sixteen, and Nathaniel, fourteen, took the news stoically, but this news began with a series of mysterious characters and events.  Her guardians included a strange man the children called, “The Moth.” 

Ondaatje has Nathaniel recalling his connection to his mother.  He writes, “Hers was the calmest voice I knew when I was a boy.  There was never an argument in it.  She had just this tactile curiosity about what interested her, and that calmness allowed you to be within her intimate space.  In daylight she always caught your eye as she talked or as she listened, she was completely with you.  As she was with the two of us that night.  A night she wanted to remember, as I have.  Rachel and I would not have walked through the darkness of that forest alone” (57).

I will admit the novel was a bit slow in the beginning, but that seems to match the bewilderment Rachel and Nathaniel experienced.  As they grew older, they began trying to figure out what was going on.  The went into the basement of the house and uncovered the steamer trunk.  They opened it to find all the items their mother had put aside for her “trip.”  The story then revolves around Nathaniel’s attempt to uncover the mystery of their parent’s behavior.  Memory, imagination, and a slow collection of clues all play a significant role in this novel.

As I delved into this intriguing story, my admiration for Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight.  If you admired The English Patient, this is a must read for fans of all sorts of stories.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!