It is 1945 and fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachael, are told one day that their parents are leaving for Singapore and they will be staying with two criminals who will watch over them for a year that turns out to be more than that. This is Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, “Warlight,” beginning with something that seems clear enough, but it isn’t clear at all.
The brother and sister grow up during this time with a previous household renter named Moth as their official guardian. The other adult that became part of the temporary family unit was Darter, a colorful character clearly working outside the law. A temporary girlfriend of Darter, Olive Lawrence, brings some worldly glamour with her during her time with them and then writes to Nathaniel and Rachael for months after leaving. Their mother never writes.
Nathaniel doesn’t do well in school and spends much of his time working, helping Darter in his life of crime, and with his first love, Agnes. Rachael likes school and is drawn to acting.
Someone has followed the two teenagers on several occasions, and when they are attacked and taken away, they are recused by friends of her mother who come with them back into their life. It turns out she has been on a secret mission and never did go to Singapore.
We shift into the second half of the novel where many seem to feel the novel slows into endless facts that don’t seem to connect but try to fill in all the blanks of the first half. Nathaniel seeks answers to his mother’s earlier life and what she had really been doing. Years pass, and he is recruited by British Intelligence to review wartime files. He learns of war atrocities.
The details of what his mother was doing when she left, the war and his mother’s past seem to connect. We know it connects because his mother, Rose, predicts that things will come together in her journal. For the reader it is questionable that the second half of this book really brings anything together.
The Author tells us that “No one really understands another’s life or even death,” This seems to be the real message of the book and that Nathaniel learns.
The first half of this book gave us a picture of two young people growing up without help from their parents at a difficult time, but the last half seemed to confirm that the book wasn’t about what happened in the first half. A confusing book.