Sri Lankan/Canadian author Michael Ondaatje's early poetic, elliptical novels were adored by the cognoscenti and stuck him with the label "writer's writer." Then someone made a silly but outrageously popular movie from his third novel, The English Patient, and Ondaatje found himself unexpectedly a bestselling author. The novel The English Patient, I imagine, was more bought than read. When fans of the film got it home and found its sophisticated prose getting in the way of the romantic center of the story, they sold the paperback, with its Ralph Fiennes/Kristin Scott Thomas cover, to used bookstores by the thousands; it was the Lincoln in the Bardo of its day.
This new novel, Warlight, is a bit more conventional, though its narrative is circular and kaleidoscopic rather than chronological. The action takes place mostly during and right after the second world war. Its first line is "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals." The voice is 14-year-old Nathaniel's. His older sister, Rachel, is the other abandoned child. The "criminals," The Moth and The Darter, are a couple of men who seem shady, but who are also entertaining and enlightening. "So we began a new life. I did not quite believe it then. And I am still uncertain whether the period of time that followed disfigured or energized my life."
The lingering mystery of the novel's first half is where their mother went. She was supposed to accompany their father to his new job in Asia, but, seemingly, she disappeared. It is up to Nathaniel, in this account, which he's writing as an adult, to try and make some sense out of what happened. He says, "There are times these years later, as I write all this down, when I feel as if I do so by candlelight. As if I cannot see what is taking place in the dark beyond the movement of this pencil."
In Warlight, Ondaatje employs his masterful, melodious prose to ask questions about history and memory. It turns out that the children's mother, Rose, was working for the government in some secret capacity that, even later, she is unable to elucidate. It also turns out that The Moth and The Darter were put in place for protection. The children, at the time, were unaware that they were in danger because of their mother's wartime activity.
The second half of the book concerns Rose's return home. Rachel flees; she will not forgive her mother for abandoning them. Nathaniel stays to witness, to be his mother's forgiver and questioner. He's never sure if he gets the story straight, which, Ondaatje implies, is true of all recorded history, filtered, as it is, through cerebration and retrospection. And all stories are subject to what remains hidden, no matter how much research or recollection is brought to bear. "Omissions and silences had surrounded our growing up. As if what was still unrevealed could only be guessed at, in the way we had needed to interpret the mute contents of a trunk full of clothes." Nathaniel is the reluctant interpreter of his mother's life. "She and I had lost each other," he says, "long ago in those confusions and silences."
Another name enters the story, a man named Felon. He was, in some clandestine way, involved with Rose during the war. He becomes another guardian, another piece of the puzzle, and another voice in Nathaniel's ear. The lesson that Nathaniel learns, or is in the process of learning, is that the past does not stay in the past. He says, "Historical studies inevitably omit the place of the accidental in life ... But Felon in fact is always open to casual accident ... He is inclusive, just as he is broad-shouldered, boisterous in the company of strangers, all this an escape from his secretiveness."
Michael Ondaatje is rightly recognized as a master stylist. His prose is crystalline, his sentences as refined and shapely as the petals of flowers. Like Kazuo Ishiguro and Steven Millhauser, his novels are as jazzy as they are beautiful evocations of time and place, as well as masterpieces of storytelling. Warlight will stay with you like a foggy but luminescent memory.