Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje has recently won the Man Booker supreme award for the last fifty years of fiction for ‘The English Patient’, a prize certain to make readers approach his latest novel ‘Warlight’ with reverential awe: his story of two children abandoned by their parents at the end of World War Two must surely be beyond criticism, such is the greatness conferred on the writer by this honour – still, there is a certain dour similarity to some of the characters that gibes with the distinct personalities he works so diligently to create. The story loses impact as a consequence.
Nathaniel and Rachel, aged fourteen and sixteen, watch their parents pack for an extended work trip to Singapore in 1945. The parents will be away for a year, not a short visit by any means, but necessary: don’t worry, though – their lodger Walter would be looking after them, they will be quite safe. Except that both teens have suspicions that Walter – whom they have nicknamed ‘The Moth’ – may be a criminal. He has some very questionable friends who could be criminals, too, not that they communicate these suspicions to their parents who leave separately, both with an excited, anticipatory air. They watch their mother Rose pack her trunk, and listen to her explanations of where she would be wearing this or that, and for which occasion – and are shocked to find months later that same trunk hidden in the basement.
She has left them. Why? For what reason? It is Nathaniel who is most obsessed with finding out the truth, especially when an attempt is made by shadowy strangers to murder him and Rachel and the Moth is fatally wounded trying to protect them. The experience was so horrific that it brings their mother back from whatever shadowy corner of the world she has been hiding: her enemies are trying to get to her through her children. It is time she returned to protect them. Her daughter doesn’t feel the same way: their mother should never have left, and their father – well, where is HE?
I would love to know that, too. He disappears completely from the narrative. A lot is made of Rose and her mysterious background, and through diligent searching via a convenient job in the Foreign Office, Nathaniel is able to trace a lot of information about his mother’s spying activities for Britain during and after the war. It is also obvious that Rose made many enemies, each of whom has her death as top priority: it is just a matter of time till she meets her fate, leaving her as a perpetual enigma to her son, and the person most hated by her daughter.
Mr Ondaatje’s prose is predictably dazzling but it was hard to warm to his characters and, instead of feeling saddened by Rose’s demise and sorry for her hapless son, all I could think of was ‘Serve you right!’ FOUR STARS