Review of Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

It impresses me that 75 years after its end, World War II, it continues to inspire great literature — A Woman of No Importance, The Splendid and the Vile, D-Day Girls, to name just a few. Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight isn’t quite a World War II novel, but it’s pretty close. It begins in 1945 as the war is ending, but the setting is bombed-out London, and Nathan, the young narrator of the novel, is still surrounded by the aftereffects. The first line of the novel sets the scene with an intriguing hook — “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”

But nothing is quite what it seems. Nathan’s parents say they’re going off to Singapore for a year for his father’s work, and the children are left in the care of a friend, who soon fills the house with cohorts and a substitute father, and yes, they may indeed be criminals. The first half of the novel is richly drawn – you can hear and smell the broken city and the Thames they travel nightly on smuggling runs. It’s mysterious and engrossing and beautiful written.

The second half takes place 14 years later and Nathaniel is now working in a government office – one full of war records that may hold the secret Nathaniel is searching for: exactly what was Nathanial’s mother Rosie doing during and after the war. This section is a little problematic because it’s about Rosie, and we never get close enough to her to understand her. But Ondaatje is a beautiful writer and this is an excellent read.

Mark Willen