Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018.
The name Warlight appears only a couple of times in the book but could not be more appropriate as a theme and thus a title. It is a reference to the lighting system used in London and England during the Blitz to help minimize the effectiveness of the German bombing. A direct reference to the recurring underworld actions and events throughout, the book is set in the immediate postwar time period in London and The Saints. The Saints were a series of small sleepy villages in Suffolk, England which were flyover territory for German bombers and the childhood home of Rose William, a main character in the book.
Warlight unfolds from the vantage point of Nathaniel along with older sister Rachel. It begins, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” In brief, one day their parents announced that they would be leaving to Singapore for a year but that the children would be fine in the care of the upstairs lodger in their own home on Ruvigny Gardens street, London. Nathaniel was fourteen and Rachel was sixteen. Eventually the reader learns that their mother’s name is Rose while their father is so briefly mentioned that he remains unnamed.
The children nickname their new guardian The Moth due to his mannerisms. He sometime uses German words and loves classical music. He is also significantly lenient with the children allowing them to leave boarding school and take on part time jobs. He is at once a disturbing yet benevolent character as he takes over their home on Ruvigny Gardens, as the author is always careful to specify the name, where a cadre of mixed and mysterious people flow in and out at all times of the day and night. One is sure foul play will befall the children but The Moth is ever protective if not much of a cook. When the other potential criminal, The Darter, asks to take Nathaniel
on an evening errand, the Moth does not ask if it is legal but wants to know, “Is it safe?”
Ondaatje is a skillfully deliberate writer, and while seemingly telling a story he is generating a certain degree of suspense in the most subtle of fashions. The reader does grow to care about the characters with perhaps the exception of the nameless father and indeed in the end all story lines are finished and explained including that of the male parent, after a fashion. Such does not always happen in less well-constructed novels. Likewise Ondaatje is a master of the sense of place. Amongst the confusion and fluidity of a post-war world the author is able to convey the feel of the transient nature of normalcy that would layer over earlier wartime London. Likewise, a reader is able to feel the utter terror of hearing squadrons of bomb laden German planes fly over a quiet home an hour’s drive from the English Channel destined for London. Such ability is easily understood when one reads the author’s credits in the back of the book. Research and care went into each and every setting which greatly enriches the story and yields gratitude from at least this reader.
While portrayed in a string of shadows and soul-stealing office buildings, in the end one can claim that the story is about love. Profound devotions which take different forms and for which great sacrifices are made often by unlikely people. Perhaps of interest to some Michiganians, would be the analogies made to angling and brief mentions to the grayling fish now extinct in the state. While a tactical discussion on strategy, even the discourse on fish flies is used to illuminate the love of nature.
At the far end, there is a small gem for the bibliophile in the form of the type font. Care was taken to explain that the book is set in Requiem designed by Jonathan Hoefler who derived it from a 1523 font. It was released in the 1990s by the foundry of the same name, Hoefler.