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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight (2018)

by Michael Ondaatje

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Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
Ondatjee never gets close enough to his characters. They don't want to, & he doesn't want them to. ( )
  c_why | Jun 14, 2019 |
There are lots of wonderful things about this book, but one thing seemed to me a little flat -- the characters. The story is that of two teenaged children, a boy and a girl, living in London in 1945. The first part of the book tells of their disrupted adolescence. Their father disappears, to take up a job in Singapore they are told, and is shortly followed by their mother. They are looked after by a strange cast of possibly criminal characters, and their lives spin out of the upper middle class mold they seem to have been born into. In the second part of the book, it is almost fifteen years later, and the now-grown up boy -- Nathaniel -- is trying to piece together what happened. Most of it comes together, but we are reminded that memory is constructed.

The writing is lovely, particularly when it comes to the description of natural phenomena -- rivers, dogs, brush; the descriptions are so evocative that you can practically small the settings. And there is a delicate awareness of how treacherous time can be, particularly our own efforts to assemble our own pasts. What I missed was characters who drew me in. In the first part, Nathaniel does this to a degree, and some of the subsidiary characters are vividly drawn. But in the second part, it all feels distant -- we observe Nathaniel trying to reconstruct things based on what other people choose to tell him. There is a sense of many layers between the truth (if there is one) and the observer. Life is indeed like that, but in this instance it puts some of the characters at such a distance that it is difficult to figure out what has happened to them, or indeed to care very much.

All in all the book is well worth reading, if not entirely satisfying. ( )
  annbury | Jun 6, 2019 |
The only other Ondaatje novel I've read is The English Patient and that was over 20 years ago, just after it came out. I only picked this up because it's on the Booker 2018 longlist, and I was skeptical I'd enjoy it, even if I appreciated it. I was so wrong. It was a marvelous reading experience and it demonstrates just how good a novel can be in the hands of a talented and accomplished veteran author. I say veteran because most debut and newer authors just don't have this level of control over their craft.

The story itself is divided into two halves, both told by the narrator at different points in his life. In the first half Nathaniel is a teenager living in London at the end of WW2. His parents have left him and his sister in the care of a family friend while they go to his father's new work posting in Asia. Or so the children are told. In fact, it turns out that the parents are elsewhere and they are very much Not What They Seem. The family friend, nicknamed The Moth, is there both to supervise the children and to protect them from harm, and he collects a variety of other unusual and interesting people along the way to help. The most significant of these is The Darter, who does all kinds of vague, murky things including piloting a barge up and down London's canals, delivering goods.

This part of the story is very much Nathaniel's coming-of-age tale, where he has lots of adventures and experiences but nothing really happens until the very end of the section. When I was reading, I wondered to myself why this story needed to be told. Another middle-class English boy at the end of WW2, London beautifully rendered during this period, dense and atmospheric language, but why? Then things ramp up with a bang, and we suddenly discover that the children really were in danger, and that their mother has a much more interesting life than Nathaniel realized (as do The Moth and The Darter).

After the shocks and revelations that conclude the first section, the second half picks up about thirteen years later. It is the late 1950s and Nathaniel lives in the countryside, next door to his mother's family home, and he works for the intelligence service. He spent a number of the intervening years with his mother, but his sister has moved away and has nothing to do with either of them. The father continues to be absent. Nathaniel exploits his information access to learn more about what his mother was doing during and after the war, and through flashbacks we read about his life with her in the late 1940s and 1950s.

These parts of the novel really came alive for me. Nathaniel's mother owns every page she's on, and the tensions she feels between her various responsibilities and her desires are beautifully depicted. Slowly, over the course of the second section, all kinds of small and large occurrences in the first half are tied together and made sense of. By the end of the novel I realized that everything in the first half, everything I couldn't understand, had a purpose and a place. But it's not like a magician's trick, where you suddenly see what was under the handkerchief. It's much more organic and subtle than that.

It's rare that I read a novel in which everything comes together in such an assured and accomplished way. Ondaatje is such an atmospheric writer; you feel the sounds, the smells, the light of the settings, and you feel the emotion as much as you read it. This is a book to reread and savor. ( )
1 vote Sunita_p | May 18, 2019 |
I struggled with the first half with what I consider ‘intentional obscurity’ injected by the author. After reading ThevEnglish Patient, I re-read the first 50 pages with a new understanding of clues left by the author. The jumping across different years in the novel also made it difficult, despite my attempts to construct a Skelton narrative. I do like my writers to write clearly. Some in my book club loved the prose, one calling it ‘poetic realism’. I thought it adequate, finding few passages worth reading out loud. I like spy novels and memoirs, and this raised issues for spies with children- they are not compatible ! ( )
  MaximWilson | Apr 28, 2019 |
In essence, this is a story of a young boy’s search for understanding. Abandoned by his parents In 1945 London, teen-aged Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, live under the watchful eyes of a motley group of adults. Their home is a shadowy world where seemingly-disreputable people drift in and out, like wind-blown chaff and mostly without explanation. Along the way, Nathaniel does normal teen-ager things: gets a job, has a girlfriend, but always there’s the underlying question of why the parents went away.

Fourteen years later, Nathaniel still seeks answers; his recollections and musings form the groundwork for his understanding of the past. Ultimately, however, there’s nothing concrete in his conclusions and his discernments exist only as conjectures.

In the end, the elegiac prose is the overarching reason to read this narrative. ( )
  jfe16 | Apr 27, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
Ondaatje’s shrewd character study plays out in a smart, sophisticated drama, one worth the long wait for fans of wartime intrigue.
added by Shortride | editKirkus Reivews (Mar 1, 2018)
By now we know what we are going to get from an Ondaatje novel: A moody, murky, lightly pretentious and mostly nonlinear investigation of lives and stories that harbor tantalizing gaps.

There will be disquisitions on arcane topics including, frequently, mapmaking. Wartime and/or criminality will feature in the foreground or background. The nature of storytelling will be weighed and found fascinating. The spine of the plot, unlike the spine of a steamed fish, will be nearly impossible to remove whole.....Ondaatje’s new novel, “Warlight,” is his best since “The English Patient.” That sounds like a publicist’s dream quote, but perhaps it isn’t exactly. I was among that sodality of readers who didn’t cotton to “The English Patient,” finding it merely moody, murky and lightly pretentious, a tone poem in search of a whetstone....There’s an unpleasant sense that Ondaatje is regaling us rather than simply putting across a story. In his overweening interest in secrets and tall tales, in his relish for how stories are told, he’s taken the Salman Rushdie exit off the Paul Auster turnpike....Yet his burnished, lukewarm sentences don’t snap to life like the people he enjoys. Reading him on these scruffy men and women is like listening to someone try to play “Long Tall Sally” on solo cello. It’s not awful, but it’s weird.
We are in familiar Ondaatje territory here – sensuous prose, curious characters, missing threads, unstable footings. But which of these fragments has real significance? “Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?” ponders the narrator – and the reader – as each searches for meaning....This mesmerizing novel begins in 1945, when Nathaniel’s parents disappear, leaving Nathaniel, then 14, and his 16-year old sister in a grimy, postwar South London, “in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Ostensibly, both parents are going to Singapore for a year, for their father’s new job. Meanwhile, the two men – Walter (tagged “the Moth” by the children for his “shy movements”) and “the Pimlico Darter” (an ex-welterweight boxer) – fill the house with bizarre visitors....Every sentence that Ondaatje writes defies gravity with its elegance, yet is weighty with significance. Water rushes out of taps “like time itself.” There are baffling loose ends and moments of tension. And yet, underneath the uncertainty there is a sturdy cohesion that makes this one of Ondaatje’s most successful and satisfying novels.
A boy alone in postwar London is drawn into shadowy worlds in this suspenseful yet frustrating story from the English Patient author....Michael Ondaatje likes writing about uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, not quite with the Keatsian ambition of resisting “any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, but because he relishes the idea of thoughts being fluid and characters essentially unknowable....scenes are habitually softened by half-lights, and all action and most reflection are slowed by rich (some would say overwritten) prose. Hence, too, the procedures of his other novels, in which similarly striking narrative potential is mostly kept in check, or actually stifled...In Ondaatje’s new novel, his eighth, his appetite for imprecision is stronger than ever..Rather than closing the book convinced that psychological insights have been generated by Jamesian withholdings, we might equally well feel that characters have been flattened by our simply not knowing enough about them, and that our interest in their doings is diminished by the same means.
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“Most of the great battles are fought in the creases of topographical maps.”
For Ellen Seligman, Sonny Mehta, and Liz Calder
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In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.
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Decades after World War II, Nathaniel Williams reflects on his experiences in 1945, when his parents left him and his sister in the care of a mysterious neighbor.

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