Between his novels and volumes of poetry, Michael Ondaatje — the Sri Lankan-born author of dreamy, elliptical best-sellers like Anil’s Ghost and Booker Prize winner The English Patient — has always seemed like a sort of literary mystic, a wizard of mood and atmosphere. If you handed him a protractor, he would probably draw you a cloud.
So it feels almost jarring when his latest novel, Warlight, lays down its narrative gauntlet with a surprisingly earthbound first line: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Soon, though, ambiguities creep in; 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, quickly learn that their mother has not, in fact, followed their father to Singapore for his new job, though they have no clue where she’s gone instead. And the family friend assigned to look after them, a quiet man they call The Moth, turns their home into a nocturnal clubhouse filled with vivid, shadowy characters: opera singers, haberdashers, petty criminals, even a “verbose beekeeper.”
Woven into Warlight’s pages are the fragments of several fascinating half-stories: teenage romance, international espionage, greyhound smuggling, surrogate fatherhood, sibling rivalry. Ondaatje approaches most of them at a kind of lyrical but inscrutable remove — less a linear record of what was said and done than a mournful, impressionistic memory of all the things that never were. B