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'Warlight' Illumines Family Secrets In Ondaatje's Latest

The title of Michael Ondaatje's atmospheric new novel — Warlight — refers most directly to the dimmed lights that guided emergency traffic during wartime blackouts, but it applies equally to the cloak of secrecy and uncertainty that blankets this haunting tale.

Much of the action — lovers' trysts in abandoned buildings, covert wartime operations, transportation of contraband goods and illegally imported greyhound racing dogs — takes place not just in the metaphorical darkness of unreliable memory and deliberate deception, but in a "wet, pitch-black universe" occasionally illuminated by the guiding glow of what was known as a "bomber's moon."

Ondaatje sets up his novel with its very first line: "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals." The narrator, Nathaniel Williams, is 14, his sister Rachel almost 16. Their first disillusionment comes when they discover, months after their mother's departure, that she isn't where she said she was going. Warlight is Nathaniel's attempt, some 15 years later, to figure out where his parents did go, and why he and his sister were left in the dark.

Like The English Patient, Ondaatje's 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel, Warlight's concern is with the wages and repercussions of war, again addressed in a narrative that involves morally ambiguous espionage, pieced together and revealed gradually, bit by tantalizing bit. Raised on a legacy of partial information, Ondaatje's young narrator knows "how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth." This book, his reclamation of what he calls his "lost inheritance," combines recollection, history, and imagination to often shimmering effect. He plugs up holes as necessary with conjectures, partially based on clandestine research he does on the side of his job assessing government archives for compromising records. He comments: "We order our lives with such barely held stories. As if we have been lost for generations in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken."

The novel is filled with nicknames, aliases, and disguises. Nathaniel's mother, Rose, calls her children Stitch and Wren. She's known on the airwaves by her code name, Viola — the object of a furious manhunt that also threatens her family. The children dub their two enigmatic, shady — but unexpectedly kind — guardians The Moth and The Darter, while Nathaniel refers to his first girlfriend as Agnes Street, after the location of the empty rental property where they first meet for sex. Real names and identities are lost in the shuffle, as are both Nathaniel's original family and the eccentric, makeshift one he cobbles together by circumstances.

The defining characteristics of Nathaniel's youth are the insecurity and yearning for safety that accompany uncertainty. Not surprisingly, these feelings persist into his adulthood. "There are times these years later, as I write all this down, when I feel as if I do so by candlelight," Nathaniel writes from the comfort of his beloved safe haven, a country house with a walled garden. "As if I cannot see what is taking place in the dark beyond the movement of this pencil. These feel like moments without context."

The murkiness, camouflage, and subterfuge add intrigue and atmosphere to 'Warlight,' but many of the characters remain hazy, sometimes frustratingly so.

The murkiness, camouflage, and subterfuge add intrigue and atmosphere to Warlight, but many of the characters remain hazy, sometimes frustratingly so, as if you were trying to make out their features through sunglasses at night. The thwarted love story Nathaniel imagines for his self-contained, forever strategizing mother falls far short of the intense, aching passion and loss at the heart of The English Patient. Rose, who tries to teach her son the arts of self-defense, wily attack, and retreat through chess, may be brave and heroic, but she is also chronically cryptic — and unable to let down her guard long enough to succumb to love.

After several violent episodes bring Nathaniel's childhood to an abrupt end, he too becomes unable to let down his guard. Worse, he ends up a ghost in his own life: "I think it was becoming clear that it was not just my mother's past that had become buried and anonymous. I felt I too had disappeared. I had lost my youth," he writes. With Warlight, Ondaatje gives us another reminder of the long dark shadow cast by war. "Wars don't end," he writes. "They never remain in the past."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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