• By Michael Ondaatje
  • Knopf
  • 304 pp.

An immersive post-WWII tale of intrigue from a true master.


Michael Ondaatje’s first book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, came out in 1970. Reading it nearly 25 years later, it struck me with the force of lightning, where you’re stunned for a few silent seconds, unsure of the flashes you just saw. Then the rumbling follows. In that book, Ondaatje played with history and the icons of America’s past with the sensibility of a poet, which is what he is.

It was my first encounter with that sort of metafiction — a series of poems and fragments presented as the thoughts of Billy the Kid in the last year of his life, a sequence that created a portrait. I read that book while passing through the tumbleweed stretches of New Mexico, and it made me feel so deeply into that landscape. It made time, and the openness of a lost age, real and vivid. I was open to the fragments.

Ondaatje went further into the seams of history with Coming Through Slaughter (1976), a novel of a completely different pace, a fictional account of early jazz legend Buddy Bolden. Before Bolden’s story was known as it now is (which is still not well enough), this Canadian writer, born in Sri Lanka, inhabited it with the breath control of Louis Armstrong.

Coming Through Slaughter (the title refers to Bolden’s passage through the town of Slaughter, Louisiana, during his transfer to a mental institution) does many things: It gets inside the sounds and culture of early jazz with intimacy and boldness. It portrays a musician imagining a new music. And it investigates turn-of-the-century New Orleans in its many contradictions.

“I’ve always been interested in what is underneath the formal landscape of a place,” Ondaatje said in a recent interview. He became famous for his 1992 novel, The English Patient, another interrogation of a near-voiceless character at the margin of history, but it was his Bolden novel that haunted me.

Warlight moves with the same sinuous language as those earlier books. Here, the author shines inky light on the dark, complicated nature of family in what can sometimes be depicted as a bland and square world of postwar England. Ondaatje lived in London during his teens in the 1950s and channels that experience, along with the city’s Dickensian character.

The story follows Nathaniel, 14, and his older sister, Rachel, at the end of WWII, when their parents abruptly leave them behind in London. Their father says the couple must move to Singapore for a year and appoints as their guardian a mysterious figure named the Moth.

The children sense he might be a criminal, but they grow less concerned as their home becomes the hub for his eccentric crew of friends: a surrogate family of men and women linked by some vague wartime service. But who are they really?

Nathaniel accompanies a man named the Darter on nocturnal deliveries of dogs to shady racetracks:

“On the moonless night river I calmed them by simply raising my teenage head in a gesture of strictness whenever they attempted to bark. I felt I was quieting an orchestra, and it had the charm and pleasure of first power. The Darter stood at the wheelhouse guiding us through the night, humming ‘But Not for Me.’ It always sounded like a sigh the way he sang it to himself, his mind elsewhere, barely conscious of the lyrics in his mouth.”

The mystery deepens when their mother returns alone after months of silence, without apology, explaining nothing.

The story’s espionage element plays with and defies the genre. It becomes more personal as Nathaniel searches for clues about his mother, including where she went during the war and after. Ondaatje has fun with the spy genre’s toys the same way Denis Johnson played with noir in his slim private-detective novel, Nobody Move.

Ondaatje tosses in parrots and lock-picking techniques and watches:

“It was the veterinarian, the one who had inherited the parrots, who taught me how to open locks on a filing cabinet…she recommended a powerful anaesthetic used on damaged hooves and bones that I could apply around a lock until a white condensation appeared. The freezing would slow down the lock’s resistance to any trespass and allow me to carry out my next stage of attack.”

The story can twist out of reach at a few points, but Ondaatje reels us back — sometimes years later. The core conceit is that a spy’s guardedness lies at the heart of the family. Sister and brother observe each other, withholding and disclosing as it suits them, sometimes not knowing why.

A scene of Nathaniel and his mother playing chess in a greenhouse during a storm feels a bit on-the-nose, but the language settles and takes over:

“The lightning and thunder made us feel defenceless within the thin glass shell. Outside, it could have been Bellini’s opera; inside, there was the drugged air of plants, and two bars of electrical heat attempting to warm the room…My mother in her blue cardigan smoked, barely looking at me. All that August there had been storms, and then in the morning clear, fresh daylight, as if a new century. Focus, she’d whisper as we sat down within the storm’s gunfire and flare lights.”

Even a short trip that Nathaniel takes out of nostalgic longing to find a friend from those years brings the observational keenness of a detective and an earth-shaking revelation.

Beyond the fine details, Ondaatje is exploring the legacy of war and how everyone involved reshapes themselves in its wake. Looking back on a woman named Olive, a glamorous ethnographer whom he admired, Nathaniel writes, “Few knew of her work during that period; she did not mention it in her book or on the television documentary I watched as an adult. There were so many like her, who were content in the modesty of their wartime skills.”

Warlight sets this drama appropriately amid London fog at its murky edges — the shores of the Thames and its lacework of canals; the countryside near Suffolk. In finding his way through the story, the author crosses new lexicons, and we emerge from it like after a hard rain.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]

David A. Taylor’s fiction collection Success - Stories received the Washington Writers’ Publishing House fiction prize and was a People’s Choice finalist in the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. His nonfiction includes Soul of a People, about the WPA writers of the 1930s. His new book is Cork Wars: Intrigue and Industry in World War II, a history involving three immigrant families caught up by war, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. He teaches at the Johns Hopkins Science Writing Program and at the Writer’s Center.

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