By Michael Ondaatje
285 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
We order our lives with barely held stories.
Warlight, the seventh novel from Michael Ondaatje, is really composed of two stories. The first is two children learning to live without their parents, who seemingly abandoned them, and the second, told decades later, is the son’s journey to find out what his mother did during those lost years.
When the narrator, Nathaniel, and his sister are informed that their parents are going away for a year, it didn’t bother them as much as the idea might have for others: “We accepted the decision, as children do.” The father has business in Singapore, and the mother must go with him. Nathaniel and his sister are left in the care of two men, The Moth and The Darter, whose personalities fit their respective names. The Moth is “a humble man, large but moth-like in his shy movements.” In contrast to The Moth, The Darter was dedicated to quickness. A former boxer, The Darter “appeared most at ease in a limited space” and had “a furtive walk, as if he was saving energy for a later moment.” The Moth and The Darter create a home life filled with misfits. “They did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson. The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer.”
Ondaatje’s style is poetic; his adept word choice amplifies its cadence. He has an elegant and skillful manner of prose that almost induces calm. The story is told in a dreamlike manner, like recalling foggy memories. The first and only other book I’ve read by Ondaatje is his memoir Running In the Family, which was my favorite book I read in high school and has a similar aesthetic. His prose sparkles softly, like a twinkle in an eye.
Until the ending, Ondaatje doesn’t quite escape the cliché traps that typically accompany war/spy narratives. About halfway through, the clichés become trifling and overdrawn. Despite this, the book is worth reading for the startling ending.
Rating: 3 stars
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Photo credits: @judsongates on Instagram