Warlight: A Novel
Hardback: Knopf, 2018
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Reviewed by Grant Currier
Certain places are identifiable purely through our noses: bath houses with their mixture of captive humidity and spearmint; tearooms, bright with a sun that warms the bergamot pears and Assams densely collecting in water; libraries, rich with the aromatic vanillin coming off the old tomes and the nestled scent of peach hand cream imbedded in the spines. Even the ancient Hebrew tabernacle and temple were identified by their smell, indicating you had entered a sublime place of worship, reverence, holiness. Those familiar with Michael Ondaatje’s writing know its redolence; the identifiable fragrance of his sentences almost sears the skin with its pellucid brilliance. There is, on a sentence to sentence level, almost nothing out of place, each pomegranate intentionally placed on the dividing curtain. Like a thurifer offering the perfectly blended incense, Warlight is no exception. To shift the metaphor, Ondaatje sets us into the censer of his writing, steeps us in the world of memory that, burning, brings out the bouquet of all our crushed spices.
Divided into two parts, the novel is narrated by Nathaniel Williams, a young boy obsessed with maps, reflecting on the years from 1945—1959. These years are dominated by the absence of his parents. Without explanation, they leave him and his elder sister, Rachel, in the care of a man called The Moth. As The Moth draws nearer to Rachel, an equally mysterious Pimlico Darter befriends Nathaniel, who is whirled into the exuberant world of dog racing and gymkhana. Through the year of his parents’ absence, Nathaniel plunges into the illicit world of gambling, race fixing, smuggling, and falls in first love with Agnes. After an attack on Nathaniel and Rachel, their mother returns to attempt to keep them safe, but this attack irrevocably further splits the family.
Jumping ahead fourteen years, the second part is far more mature, more nuanced, and perhaps because it is far more reflexive, slightly less captivating. Part of the beauty of the novel’s first half is the earnest and rending questions Nathaniel must ask as he tries to understand why his parents left. The second half is dominated by Rose, a mysterious and intelligent woman who goes into hiding to protect her children from the consequences of her patriotic yet opaque past. Even here, page after page contains the course of a translucent prosaic stream. We allow ourselves to float through the dark, calm deeps and crash against the rapids of Nathaniel’s life and discoveries. The new characters, especially that of Nathaniel’s mother, the Malakites, and Felon, interrupt the care and affection we develop for the cortège of the first half, though they are certainly worth knowing.
This division, I feel, must be intentional for a writer of Ondaatje’s quality. This textual divide acts as the rite that thrusts Nathaniel into adulthood, and both he and we are separated from the boy he once was, the individuals who then populated his life. Nathaniel closes the novel in the way we all must surely close our lives: wondering where the years and the people who populated them have gone. Caring for an aging greyhound, Nathaniel reflects how he “comes to me even with all my separateness and uncertainties. But I too wait for this. As if he might wish to tell me about his haphazard life, a past I do not know. All the unrevealed needfulness that must be in him.”
This separateness and needfulness Ondaatje identifies but does not name is an Edenic severance. It is even in a garden that Nathaniel retreats as he searches for meaning, for a recaptured past he cannot fully comprehend. He recalls what Olive Lawrence once told him, an almost immediate reversal of that serpentine whisper uttered millennia ago that keeps all of our history veiled in shadow: “Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principle thing.”
Nathaniel’s sister’s disappearance and her emergence on the theater stage, their tenuous reunion, his mother’s sickness and the failing healths of those around him, their own pasts needfully opaque: all these oppress Nathaniel. His narrative is the attempt to understand the mystery of the self by grasping the significance of others.
The title Warlight remains elusive until the novel’s end when we learn that certain bulbs were lit in the midst of a darkened city to protect the buildings and citizens and divert bombers to attack barges. Such is Rose’s failed attempt at parenting—perhaps all parenting—in trying to lure the pain of life away from the young ones.
In purchasing the Malakite’s old home, complete with a walled garden, Nathaniel steps into the role of the Individual Manqué, choosing to protect himself from others. There is no temptation in this garden except to be perpetually in the ineludible and selfish past.
Now, like the aromas of those distinct places of worship and monuments there rises the question of purpose. Of course the idea of separation heads the list, but surely recollection must play a role in worship and discovery. Nathaniel is a witness to the ephemerality of individuals and individuality: it is tragic and it is comic, and it is a testament needed for a time when the individual and the self are the lodestones of truth.
Warlight closes with hope because Nathaniel comes to know his mother in the middle of his life. He is near to “sewing it all together,” his “barely held stories” that keeps his life from the doom of circularity. He reflects on the last day he spent in the house in which his mother died, and the nightingale floor that characterized it. Mr. Malakite is waiting for him as he lays out his mother’s old clothes. Stomping on the creaking floor he sends a noise into a vacant home, the monument to individualism, and leaves.
We readers can affirm with Nathaniel the necessity of community, the dependence of understanding one another, and the debt of gratitude we owe for the generations of faithful who have lived before us. The sacrifice Rose has made teaches us and Nathaniel to “love the truth learned from strangers.”