Michael Ondaatje




Date Reviewed:

November 10th, 2019

hat a disappointment Warlight is. Despite all the high praise and lofty acclaim (Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize! An NPR Best Book of the Year!), Warlight is a letdown. I shouldn't sound surprised, I was also bored with Ondaatje's The English Patient. This is "literary" fiction at its worst - a novel that doesn't dare tell an actual story. Devoid of plot. The author has no intention of entertaining the reader.

The setup of the novel is superb. Two youngsters - Rachel and Nathaniel, are left by their parents during the Blitz on London in WWII. It is obvious to the reader, if not to the children, that their mother and father are being sent out on a secret mission to aid the war effort. The children will be left with an eccentric character called "The Moth" who is probably involved in organized crime. This leads to some nice scenes of Nathaniel becoming involved with the London underworld - smuggling goods along the canals, and moving dogs with "The Darter" for the greyhound racing business. There are also scenes where Nathaniel comes of age with a girl who works in the hotel with him - they explore buildings abandoned due to the war, haunting a landscape of air raids and live-for-the-moment parties.

Once Ondaatje has setup the story, introduced the characters and established the mystery of Nathaniel's parents, he then proceeds to....do absolutely nothing with the material. We jump ahead to the post-war years, where Nathaniel is working as an archivist for the MI6 community. Nathaniel searches for clues as to what his mother did in the war. The reader searches for suspense and plot, but ultimately finds none. I guess Ondaatje is trying to make a statement about how we never really know the history of someone else, not even someone as close as our own parents? The books ends without anything definitive. Yes, Nathaniel's mom did carry on some kind of missions, but what did she accomplish? Who knows? Ultimately, who cares? Because the Mom is just a cipher. (The father simply disappears from the narrative - presumably killed in action??).

If this book had been longer, I probably wouldn't have finished it. There just isn't enough story to hold my attention. This book is not recommended.