Michael Ondaatje is a master craftsman of words and from the very opening pages of his latest novel Warlight (Penguin Random House 2018) we feel confident we are in competent hands. It is difficult to review this book without giving away the story, which is complex and surprising. But let’s start where the novel begins. The first chapter is titled ‘A Table Full of Strangers’ and the first line is: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’
From this dramatic and mysterious opening, we are taken on a journey of secrets and lies, subterfuge and spies, dodgy criminal dealings and late-night adventures.
The story is narrated by Nathanial as an adult, as he looks back on that time of his adolescence when he and his sister Rachel were indeed abandoned by their parents and left with strangers. But all is not what it at first seems, and as the narrative develops, we are gradually drawn into the reality of what happened in those months and years after the war, when nobody was who they seemed and everybody had something to hide.
This book is the very definition of literary fiction – sparse, beautiful prose that sings off the page and delves deep into the psyches of its characters and depicts the beauty and also the trauma of the world around us. But the story is also paramount – the story of this family and the various hangers-on that completed it, the story of things hidden and denied, the story of how lives might be fractured by war and what becomes of those injured through collateral damage. The extensive research into the minutiae of life for these characters at this time is the supporting backdrop to the incidents that propel the story forward, and as we near the final pages, several threads of story come together in unexpected but satisfying ways. This is an intriguing and intricate novel.