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A novel that tells a story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

The story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings' mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn't know and understand in that time, and it is this journey—through facts, recollection, and imagination.

285 pages, Hardcover

First published May 8, 2018

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About the author

Michael Ondaatje

126 books3,598 followers
He was born to a Burgher family of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese-Portuguese origin. He moved to England with his mother in 1954. After relocating to Canada in 1962, Ondaatje became a Canadian citizen. Ondaatje studied for a time at Bishops College School and Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, but moved to Toronto and received his BA from the University of Toronto and his MA from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and began teaching at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. In 1970 he settled in Toronto. From 1971 to 1988 he taught English Literature at York University and Glendon College in Toronto.

He and his wife, novelist and academic Linda Spalding, co-edit Brick, A Literary Journal, with Michael Redhill, Michael Helm, and Esta Spalding.

Although he is best known as a novelist, Ondaatje's work also encompasses memoir, poetry, and film.

Ondaatje has, since the 1960s, also been involved with Toronto's influential Coach House Books, supporting the independent small press by working as a poetry editor.

In 1988 Michael Ondaatje was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (OC) and two years later became a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He has two children and is the brother of philanthropist, businessman, and author Christopher Ondaatje.

In 1992 he received the Man Booker Prize for his winning novel adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film, The English Patient.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,349 reviews
Profile Image for Tammy.
511 reviews429 followers
February 5, 2020
This might have been a coming of age novel but it’s not. It might have been a post WWII novel but it’s not. It might have been a family drama of sorts but it’s not. The narration is messy, the plot is pointless and the premise is unbelievable. Warlight meandered about without a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
May 18, 2022
In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.
When we are young we rely on the people who surround us to introduce us to the world, to explain the many elements of life that can be so confusing, overwhelming, or simply opaque to young eyes. Some of this knowledge can only come from first-hand experience, but it helps to have adults at hand, of a trustworthy sort, who can help us along the road of becoming. Nathaniel (aka Stitch) is fourteen. His sister, Rachel, (aka Wren) is sixteen when their parents depart for Singapore on mysterious government assignments after the war, leaving them in the care of the boarder they call “The Moth,” and a fluid cast of what can only be considered dodgy characters, reminiscent of Caravaggio from The English Patient, who was both a criminal and a spy.

Questionable they may be, at first glance anyway, but they are a remarkably colorful lot. One of my favorites was one Norman Marshall, aka The Pimlico Darter, aka The Darter, a fellow with a taste for cheating at dog-race betting and transporting materials uncertain, nicely hidden in boxes, from one place to another under cover of night. All very hush-hush, and possibly criminal. There are plenty of other lively supporting characters who stroll, dash, or creep across the pages.
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.
It is among these remarkable personalities that Nat and Rachel are introduced to the realities of a world that exists largely in shadows, the dim light redolent of wartime London, or warlight of the title. The first part of the story, Nat and Rachel’s adolescence, takes place in the immediate post-war period. The curtain between war and post-war being sometimes permeable, they are affected by events of a continuing shadow engagement, in which war-time battle driven by armored divisions, fleets of ships, and waves of aircraft was replaced by the dimly-lit conflict of combatants in street clothes, engaged in theatres where stealth and treachery defined the landscape.
We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.
The focus is primarily on Nathaniel, with Rachel relegated to activities that are mostly reported rather seen first-hand. There is a strong element of coming of age here for Nat, whose experiences in the world of work, whether legal or not, and adventures with the opposite sex expose him to a broader vision of the world. With both parents away, he must look to the adults at hand for role models. It would help if he actually knew what they were really on about.

Michael Ondaatje - image from his FB pages

Further on, we meet him in his late twenties, in a surprising profession, focused on learning the full truth of his mother’s involvement in the war, and with related tasks after.
…There’s a photograph I have of my mother in which her features are barely revealed. I recognize her from just her stance, some gesture in her limbs, even though it was taken before I was born… I found it years later in the spare bedroom among the few remnants she had decided not to throw away. I have it with me still. This almost anonymous person, balanced awkwardly, holding on to her own safety. Already incognito.
Nat’s search for the truth of his mother, Rose’s, life is, in a way, a stand-in for seeking the truth of his own. Telemachus wanting to learn of his mother’s odyssey. While the primary focus of the book is on Nathaniel, Rose comes in for the next-most attention. Her history is fascinating, and a delight to read.

There are many echoes here of the author’s prior work. (I have read several, but not all of his earlier six novels) As he has done before, Ondaatje takes us into war from a place of later reflection through older, wiser eyes, which may remind readers of Anil recalling ethnic slaughter in Sri Lanka in Anil’s Ghost, or the many war scenes in The English Patient.
You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.
In our look-back, Rose and others engage in mortally perilous missions. Some do battle on the homefront as well, although no less dangerously. Scarring is another feature Ondaatje returns to. The English Patient was surely a high point in the literature of skin miseries. But the experience that scarring suggests shows up here as well. An immigrant with whom Nat works as a teen sports noticeable facial scarring. A co-worker of his mother has less than beautiful hands from his scaling interest. Another has abdominal marks that were clearly nearly mortal and Rose has a decent dose of skin-told-tales as well.

He also sustains the motif of almost-darkness in looking back at this time, as well as in the characters’ initial experience of it.
There are times these years later, as I write all this down, when I feel as if I do so by candlelight.
The darkness extends to identification as well, given how many of the characters are known by their colorful noms du guerre rather than by what might appear on their birth certificates.

There are bits of payload you will appreciate here, information about the real world that appears in the story, some information on greyhounds and dog-racing, and covert programs to cope with domestic security risks. You will get a feel for life in London during the aftermath of war, and also in The Saints, an area of England new to me. You will pick up a bit on the range of bird whistle signals that might be used by a secretive Thames-borne barge, and most surprisingly learn a bit about stegophily. (you have to click, at least, to learn that one.) Ondaatje mentions a program of post-war mopping up, called The Silent Correction. I do not know if it refers to something real or imagined. My googling yielded nothing informative, but it does seem like the sort of thing that would have existed. An abbey that is put to another purpose is a fun-fact. An interesting element is the acquisition of skills that might not be so readily acquired during peacetime. A bee-keeper, for example, has a questionable talent for anaesthetics gained during the Italian campaign. A veterinarian is a skilled lock-picker.

Ondaatje plants seeds early in the tale that grow to mighty oaks by the end. There is a large twist, serving to remind how what has happened can define what is and direct what can be.
We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change. We learn, we evolve. What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here. But who did I hurt to get here? Who guided me to something better? Or accepted the few small things I was competent at? Who taught me to laugh as I lied?...But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do?
As in most good novels, there are Easter-egg clues to the novelist’s craft.
a high perspective, as from a belfry or cloister roof, allows you to see over walls into usually hidden distances, as if into other lives and countries, to discover what might be occurring there, a lateral awareness allowed by height.
This nicely reflects the author’s on-high ability to see past windows into the secrets of his/her characters’ lives. And another nugget.
Who made me move from just an interest in “characters” to what they would do to others?
And just in case you were not aware, Ondaatje’s writing is poetical, exquisite, and moving. There are many passages in Warlight that call you to return, mull, and savor. A writer who is not fond of linear narrative, he jumps about without much warning, but attentive readers should have little difficulty knowing when they are in the narrative. While considerable attention is paid to the business of international intrigue, that seems more to provide a palette against which the characters can be displayed.

Warlight may be about the dim light of history, secrecy, mystery, and uncertainty, but it glows with the luminescence of a master story-teller at the peak of his power. Whether you read by the glow of a low-wattage bulb or under the blaze of the noonday sun, the sparkle will shine through. I found Nat’s story, as well as his mother’s, compelling. Nat’s yearning to cast light on his family’s secrets will lead you along, teach you a thing or two, tug on your emotions, and leave you dazzled. Ondaatje’s portrait of coming of age during dire times, and the perils and prices of desperate measures, will keep you turning pages, whatever the candle-power at your disposal. The challenge of making moral decisions under dangerous and murky conditions that is presented here should, nonetheless, leave you with a simple, unambiguous, choice. Warlight is such a brilliant piece of work that you might need shades.

Review first posted – May 4, 2018

Publication – May 8, 2018

I received the book from the publisher's First To Read program in return for an honest review. I will post the dishonest review elsewhere.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Michael Ondaatje on FB

The Guardian - MO reading an essay he wrote while staying in Conrad’s boat in London Guardian Artangel books podcast: Michael Ondaatje

June 4, 2007 – The New Yorker - The Aesthete: The novel and Michael Ondaatje by Louis Menand – a fascinating analysis of MO’s work -
He is not telling stories; he is using the elements of storytelling to gesture in the direction of a constellation of moods, themes, and images. He is creating the literary equivalent of a Cornell box or a rock garden or a floral arrangement.
July 18, 2018 - Warlight is long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Award for Fiction
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,001 reviews35.9k followers
October 25, 2019
Damn this was good!!!!
I purposely stayed away from reviews- but now I’m dying to read what others have to say - especially since I’m ‘long-winded review-retired’ for the rest of 2018.

From the title itself, “Warlight”, to the luring first line in the novel - “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”......I was completely captivated to the end.

Nathaniel—is an adult writing about his life.
In childhood, Nathaniel, 14, and Rachel 16, get entangled with a slew of fascinating sinewy boisterous characters whom most seem to have nicknames. The siblings and their mother also have nicknames…very symbolic to this novel: everyone being a substitute. Smugglers and low lives replace parents.

From Nathaniel’s childhood to his adult years he is most unsettled with his mother. Her secrets - lies - betrayal- and heroism - resulted in adverse blacklash for their family.
The questions that troubled Nathaniel about his mother -things not fitting together- haunting & mysterious —were insightful about post war life.
Past wars are never past. The loss, destruction, and hurt still lives.

Michael Ondaatje is phenomenally talented. His prose is powerful and luminous.

Extraordinary mysterious atmosphere—a few violent scenes - seductive to the end.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
August 26, 2020
“Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore. ‘Schwer,’  he’d say, with his fingers gesturing the inverted commas, and we’d mouth the word and then the translation, or simply nod in weary recognition. My sister and I got used to parroting the word back to each other—“schwer.”

Nothing is safe, and no one can be trusted.

The war is over, but not for everyone. Those who had been working in the shadows during WW2 are now being asked to transition to a new war that would eventually be referred to as The Cold War. Some, like Rachel and Nathaniel’s mother and father, want to walk away from their clandestine work, but with the powerful enemies they have made, that is proving impossible. They either know too much or they have thwarted too many insidious plans.

Of course, we can only speculate because Rose Williams does not talk about her life during the war. To her children, her life is an enigma that can only be unraveled with truth serum. She is not an ideal mother. She is distant when they want her to be warm. She gives cryptic advice when they need her reassurances.

Rose admits: ”My sins are various,” which is still an obscuring statement, but about as close to a personal admission as Nathaniel will ever get from her.

And then their father and mother disappear.

Rachel has just turned 16, and Nathaniel is 14. They are left in the hands of a man they call The Moth and another more dynamic personality called The Darter. The family makes a habit of assigning people nicknames; Rachel is Wren, and Nathaniel is Stitch. We can call them nicknames, but knowing the background of their parents, we can’t help but think of them as codenames. Names to call someone that won’t reveal them for who they really are.

The Moth and The Darter are an odd pairing, but then these are unusual circumstances that require people who can protect them rather than be the surrogate parents they wish for. The interesting friends and associates, especially of Darter, who Stitch and Wren come into contact with provide a view of alternative lifestyles that are sometimes disconcerting, but whether they know it or not, those brief contacts with those people are expanding their definitions of what a normal life looks like. The contact is brief indeed. Just when they start to know someone, they disappear, never to be seen again, which each time is like losing their parents all over again.

One woman, in particular, proves memorable, especially for Stitch. She is Olive Lawrence, an ethnographer with way too much class to be the girlfriend of a barge rat like The Darter, but there is something about him that fascinates her. ”There was something in these professional women that suggested it was not a case of The Darter’s selecting them but of the women’s choosing him; as if Olive Lawrence, a specialist in distant cultures, had stumbled suddenly on a man who reminded her of an almost extinct medieval species, a person still unaware of any of the principal courtesies introduced in the past hundred years.”

School becomes a secondary concern for Stitch as he starts to help The Darter with his rather clandestine midnight activities. He might be ferrying greyhounds from other countries to be used in one of the numerous illegal betting tracks, or it might be something much more dangerous. Stitch is a natural at covert activities.

Later after college, he is recruited by some branch of British Intelligence, and he uses that time and the things he learned from The Darter to “liberate” files from certain locked cabinets to learn more about his parents, especially his mom. His mother remains a nebulous creature, impossible to hold, impossible to know. He is lost in ”the maze of his mother’s life.”

Will he ever know the truth?

I’ve noticed some readers have thought this tale meanders or that the circumstances are implausible, but I must say that, for me, the meandering makes it feel more like real life (life is rarely linear), and whatever might have been thought of as implausible is actually very plausible for me. I read a lot of history, and it is rife with so many events that defy believability that I must contend that anything that anyone can think of has been done by someone somewhere. The circumstances of this novel do not come even close to stretching the imagination. I don’t even like the word implausible. It is a word of limitation that closes the mind. Nothing in my world is implausible, not even that gray area between fiction and reality.

This was a wonderful, evocative reading experience that certainly is still haunting this reader. It reminded me that there are so many unknown heroes, not just from our wars but also from the nebulous times in between conflicts, when wars are extinguished before they start, when our secrets are kept safe, and when lives are snuffed in the shadows.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
703 reviews3,275 followers
December 8, 2021
In Warlight, Ondaatje has crafted an ode to twentieth-century storytelling. A purposeless hero, a disdain for plot, and a lack of sensational revelations equate to a mind-numbing read in which nothing much happens.

In 1945 London, fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are abandoned by their parents, left in the care of a guardian selected by their mother. By following Nathaniel in his formative years, Ondaatje presumably intends to explore the aftereffects of war, to examine how a family is devastated by a pressing obligation to their country. However, Nathaniel is largely indifferent to his parents’ departure. He barely knew his father, and his mother’s absence is quickly overshadowed by the behavior of his strange-mannered guardian (nicknamed “The Moth”) and the peculiar social circle The Moth inhabits.

Warlight’s dust jacket proclaims this is a narrative “as mysterious and luminous as memory itself,” but there’s nothing mysterious about this book. Who Nathaniel’s parents were during the war, the seemingly questionable behavior of The Moth, and the criminal deeds of his acquaintances are either easily discernable or undisguised.

And, yes, the narrative is justifiably nonchronological, mimicking how memory does not follow a linear path, but these glimpses into Nathaniel’s past are lusterless because he doesn’t change by the end of the book. Nathaniel lacks an arc; he faces no moral quandary, no point of growth that forces readers to question where he started or how he arrived at a significant moment in adulthood. Even the people who surround Nathaniel remain largely unchanged. And since everyone mostly gets along, there’s an aching lack of conflict.

One of the redeeming qualities of Warlight are the tender moments shared between Nathaniel and Rachel, particularly when her epileptic fits strike. However, faint glimpses of their closeness prove inconsequential when, as adults, they opt to fend for themselves; a separateness Nathaniel reveals with nonchalance.

Had Ondaatje opted to follow Rachel, Warlight might have been salvaged. She’s the only character notably affected by her mother’s absence. “It is Rachel, who needed a close relationship with a mother during that time,” Nathaniel explains, “to protect her in the way a mother could.” It is Rachel who first thinks their guardian is a criminal and later becomes “surprisingly fond of talking to him.” Rachel whose life choices as an adult echo the instances that shattered her formative years.

Antiplot, stagnant characters, and a lack of mystery make Warlight a sleepy addition to the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist.
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,043 followers
July 14, 2018
A master craftsman at the height of his powers. I could have gone on reading this until kingdom come. If I had to compare Ondaajte's novels with a city it would be Venice. Venice which so eloquently visualises the poetic ordering demands of memory and the exalting aspirations of identity. Venice which is washed through with the simultaneously life affirming and melancholy tang of tidal salt water.

Warlight is a novel about the secret underlife of identity and about how we seek to construct memory in a narrative form to sustain a structure of order. Perhaps the most mysterious people in our lives are our own parents. Behind the domestic façade how much is hidden from us. Our parents perhaps more than anyone make us realise how much is censored and even left out in talk. When interrogated they stick to their cover stories, like the best undercover agent. They have a secret life of which we generally have little inkling. Thus if you're going to write a novel about a son seeking to piece together his mother's life after her death it's a simple stroke of genius to make her a secret agent. All our parents are secret agents. They exert as much energy in hiding themselves from us as making themselves known.

All the light in this novel is clandestine, evanescent, stolen or tricked from a felt pervading darkness. Narratively it follows the principles of memory. The bigger picture is always elusive; isolated detail as if picked out by torchlight has to be padded out to provide a storyline. As the author says at the end, "We order our lives with barely held stories."

As you'd expect with Onjaadte, Warlight is beautiful, poetic, romantic, fabulously constructed but, more surprisingly, it's also very exciting. The son, abandoned by his parents for the duration of the war, never quite knows the true nature of the roles played by the guardians of his adolescence nor is ever told where his mother and father are. All these guardians are exceptionally gifted and enigmatic people (you might say Onjaadte doesn't do ordinary people). Everyone has a secret life utterly unknown to our narrator the puzzles of which he will seek to piece together retrospectively as an adult. It's a novel with a big wise heart that makes you love life. Memorable images abound, like the nighttime river journeys, the midnight scalings of Cambridge's spired buildings, the lovemaking in empty apartments. The best novel I've read this year by a long shot and for me the most exciting book of the decade so far.
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,607 followers
October 31, 2018
This is a novel about the after-shock of WWII in the lives of one family. I don’t know if the rest of the Allies experienced it the same way, but in Europe, the adjustment period was in many ways as cruel and fierce and bloody as the war itself. And it went on for years.

Nathaniel (14) and his sister Rachel (16) inherited much of that chaotic time. As Nathaniel narrates his recollections of this period in their lives, I felt such a deep sadness for these two. The teen years can be challenging enough without the added confusions of a father supposedly pursuing business interests in Asia, and a mother who supposedly joined him, yet left her trunk behind buried under boxes and tarps in the basement of their home.

They were supposed to be in boarding school while their upstairs neighbour, nicknamed The Moth by the teenagers, held the home together. It didn’t last long as neither Nathaniel nor Rachel wanted to be in their respective boarding schools. Without fuss, The Moth withdrew them and entered them as day students - and thus began the strangest part of their teen years.

Is this a coming-of-age story? Yes, and no. After experiencing much of their teen years through Nathaniel’s recollections, there is a leap from the time Nathaniel is about 18 until about a decade later.

Is this a spy story? Yes, and no. There is definitely undercover work involved and many strange people and incidents that Nathaniel doesn’t put together until he is a young adult.

Is this a love story? Yes, and no. There is love involved – between family members, between young people and older people; yet again – many of the relationships are a puzzle to Nathaniel and he always feels too many of the pieces are missing to see what the finished product is supposed to look like.

Warlight. This refers to the way entire hamlets, villages, and cities were blanketed in darkness during the war. For me, Nathaniel’s efforts to understand and piece together his life in a way that makes sense was the same: blanketed by blackout curtains and coverings, blocking the light on the other side and preventing him from seeing what he seeks.

This story is sad, poignant and completely without drama. In the end, I had a feeling that I had just listened to someone’s story of their life – as accurately told as possible from their point of view. Simultaneously, I felt the pathos of knowing that all the other people involved in the story would have their own perspective on the events of that time – and that all of them would be as real and true to their lives as Nathaniel’s story was for him.

For me, this book solidified my impressions of Michael Ondaatje’s status as a genius of storytelling. His brilliant writing never gets in the way of the story and I feel that is why this book touched me so deeply. I am still reeling with the realities that these people experienced and their acceptance of their lives as ones they may not have chosen, but ones that chose them.

This book gave me much to ponder as I read, and I am sure that I will not forget it any time soon. I highly recommend this for readers who prefer depth and fresh perspectives in their reading.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,599 reviews24.7k followers
December 11, 2018
An extraordinarily multilayered and complex historical novel exploring the nature of memory, and a coming of age story set primarily in post war London in 1945. Nathaniel, 14, and his older sister, Rachel are ostensibly abandoned to the care of what they perceive as oddball, suspect and criminal characters. They are chiefly The Moth, their lodger, ex- boxer The Pimlico Darter and others that enter their lives, some fleetingly, but never to be forgotten such as Olive Lawrence, the independent woman and ethnographer, who takes them on enlightening night walks. Their father has gone to Singapore and their mother, Rose, follows him. At their tender age, Nathaniel and Rachel are concerned by their safety and whether they can trust their offbeat and mysterious carers. However, it transpires school life is insipid in comparison to what they learn informally from the motley crew that gather in their home. Key moments in their lives, such as Rachel's epileptic fits are nonchalantly but expertly dealt with, thereby building an underlying sense that there are hidden depths, safety and protection that they can count on from The Moth and his cohorts.

Nathaniel experiences the shadows of London and wartime activities, gaining insights into the corruption of greyhound racing and night river trips, entering empty homes, having sex with Agnes Street, not her real name, and so much more, Nathaniel is to learn that there is much he is unaware of. His mother's life is a closed book, whilst bringing the dangers of espionage slamming into their lives. The older Nathaniel begins to piece together the past and throw light on the clandestine characters, most notably his mother as a spy, and events, existing below the radar, perceived only in the dim warlight where much is unseen and redacted in a pivotal period of his and Rachel's life that is to mark them indelibly. This journey to find out who his mother was, and learn more about the bunch of individuals who looked after him, who opened his eyes to hidden and surprising worlds, leads him to shine a light on himself and the effects of his actions and decisions on others. This is a beautiful exploration of memories, of the nature of war and espionage, of being a parent and the needs of children, of trust, of physical and metaphorical scars, and a historical period where secrecy was paramount, individually and nationally. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Annet.
570 reviews723 followers
September 26, 2019
Wew, this was a tough and beautiful book at the same time. It is a coming of age story of fourteen-year old Nathaniel (the narrator of this story, looking back....) and his older sister Rachel, in post-war England. Their parents have disappeared from their lives and they are surrounded by a colorful set of characters who seem there to protect them. Mysterious, intriguing, I mean, what is going on... all those characters and also beautiful storytelling and beautiful language. But tough story to get into, for me. It did take me a while, this is a book you have to pursue without hesitating, not stop, take a few pages at least and next day take another few. I see I started this one beginning August. In the beginning I could not get into the book because I put it aside for too long. Focussed on other books. However there is something about this book... that made me start again and again and then read it slowly. Beautiful. And I have to read it again soon, to grasp the full of it. Read some of Ondaatje's books and they all made me wanting more... Can understand not everyone likes it. But for me... four stars plus.

Nowadays, I eat at the hour the greyhound does. And in the evening when he feels ready for sleep, he will drift silently to the table where I work, and lower his tired head onto my hand, in order to stop me. I know this is for comfort, needing something warm and human for security, a faith in another. He comes to me even with all my separateness and uncertainties. But I too wait for this. As if he might wish to tell me about his haphazard life, a part I do not know. All the unrevealed needfulness that must be in him. So... I have the dog beside me, who needs my hand...
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews874 followers
September 18, 2018
You know those moments when you find an author you think you're going to like, but you chose the wrong book of theirs to start with? That's what happened with Warlight. This was not a good book, but I don't think it's over between me and Ondaatje. More on that in a minute.

Warlight was almost unbearably boring. I'm sorry, I know that 'boring' is the kind of pedestrian critique that we try to stay away from while reviewing, but I'm not sure I've ever read a book that felt this utterly pointless. There's no conflict, no character development, no intrigue, no payoff. This book meandered through the narrator's recollections of his youth in post-war London, halting all too briefly on defining moments, claiming to imbue them with weight but never willing to properly examine them in any kind of broader context. The nonlinear chronology could have been used effectively, but it served only to create such a distance between present-day-Nathaniel and past-Nathaniel that the chapters about his childhood lacked any sort of spark or passion or urgency. The one question that Ondaatje never seems interested in answering is why the reader should care about any of it.

The one saving grace for me was the prose. Ondaatje's writing struck me as both elegant and effortless. There is no question that this book is well-written, and I found myself pausing at certain sentences, impressed by their construction and insight:

You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.

But despite these flickers of profundity in the sentence-by-sentence writing, there isn't a whole lot of emotional depth to this novel on the whole. For a novel purportedly about memory and perception and unearthing the truth, far too much remains unexhumed. The whole thing is bizarrely perfunctory and passionless, and there is no doubt in my mind that Warlight's inclusion on the Booker longlist is an homage to Ondaatje's illustrious career more than a reflection of the quality of this particular novel. But, again, I'm willing to read more Ondaatje in the future, as I refuse to believe this is the height of what he's capable of.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,732 reviews14.1k followers
May 8, 2018
I am going to leave this unrated. At 35% I am putting this one down, unfinished. Usually enjoy this author for the wonderful way he uses words, and this book did have some of that, but the story just did not resonate with me. Maybe it's my mood, maybe I'll pick it up again sometime, but for now I'm done.
Profile Image for Lori.
308 reviews100 followers
May 26, 2018
Your parents left you with two dodgy characters while they left for a year-long trip!

Neither our storyteller, Nathaniel (Stitch) nor his sister, Rachel (Wren) know either man very well. He slowly unravels answers. Each one reveals more questions. It’s probably better that way.

I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen, and they told us we would be looked after in the holidays by a guardian, as our mother called him—we used to call him “The Moth,” a name we had invented. Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises. Rachel had already told me she suspected he worked as a criminal.
The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war; so what had been suggested did not feel unusual. We accepted the decision, as children do, and The Moth, who had recently become our third-floor lodger, a humble man, large but moth-like in his shy movements, was to be the solution. Our parents must have assumed he was reliable. As to whether The Moth’s criminality was evident to them, we were not sure.

Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews637 followers
May 15, 2018
A Lost Inheritance
We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river. I watched the welterweight boxer whom I had once perceived as harsh and antagonistic turn and look towards me, talking gently as he searched for the precise words about the ankles of Olive Lawrence, and about her knowledge of cyan charts and wind systems.


The photo is no more than a convenient summary of the noir world that Michael Ondaatje conjures up in the first hundred pages or so of this masterpiece of emotional archaeology. Like another WG Sebald, only working with words, he shows snapshots of distant reaches of a damaged London, exhausted by the Second World War. And as with Sebald, Ondaatje's word images are half-open doorways giving onto a mysterious, half-remembered past. He is a grown man looking back at his early teens, groping in the dark to grasp the shape of a life that was itself a mystery, a limbo life that begins with his opening sentence:
In 1945, our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.
One of these men is a lodger in their London house whom they call "The Moth." He is benevolent but distant, disappearing for days at a time to leave the 14-year-old narrator (Nathaniel, more generally known as "Stitch") and his older sister Rachel to their own devices. The other is a former boxer known as The Pimlico Darter, who soon involves Stitch in activities of doubtful legality such as the smuggling of greyhounds upriver to race at the London tracks. Various other people come and go in the house, such as the "geographer and ethnographer" Olive Lawrence and the scholarly Arthur McCash, but it is The Darter who makes the biggest impression:
The music-loving Moth appeared blind to the evident anarchy in The Darter. Everything the ex-boxer did was at a precarious tilt, about to come loose. Worst were the crowded car rides when the two of them sat in front, while Rachel and I and sometimes three greyhounds squabbled in the back on the way to Whitechapel. We were not even certain that the dogs belonged to him.
I am also reminded of Patrick Modiano, for his fascination with the hidden details of a great city, his excavation of memory, and his sense of a semi-criminal half-life with its roots in the War. But there are even closer echoes of Ondaatje himself. His masterpiece The English Patient is also concerned with the immediate aftermath of war, and the way in which it can make criminals into heroes. But my most immediate connection was with his 2011 novel The Cat's Table. That was the story of a voyage from Ceylon to London of a schoolboy named Michael who might to all intents and purposes have been the author; though fiction, it used (in the author's words) "the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography." In Warlight, the action has been moved back by a decade or so, but in other respects it might almost be a sequel, with the same character a year or so older, compiling a scrapbook of extraordinary experiences that would be the raw materials for his later career as an author. This sense of memoir was confirmed when I suddenly realized that Nathaniel's school is the same one that Ondaatje himself attended in London—Dulwich College:



This color painting of Dulwich by Camille Pissarro also serves to mark the break between the noir feeling of Part One of the novel and the rural setting of Part Two. For a little before the halfway point something dramatic happens which brings the adolescent adventures to an end. The story resumes again, fifteen years on, in a beautiful group of villages in North Suffolk (photo below) known as "The Saints," where his mother grew up. This is more than the brief jumps into adulthood towards the end of The Cat's Table, more like the double-time frame he uses in Divisadero. Though "double" may be a misnomer. For although the narrator moves well forward in his own life, he makes it a vantage point from which to look even further back into his mother's story, to the interwar years and her activities during the War itself. Now the narrator is trying to make sense not so much his own life as that of his mother, from childhood on. Yet understanding his mother and understanding himself may be parts of the same process:
When you attempt a memoir, I am told, you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you, and the things you have grown cautious and hesitant about, will come almost casually to you. "A memoir is the lost inheritance," you realize, so during this time you must learn how and where to look. In the resulting self-portrait everything will rhyme, because everything has been reflected. If a gesture was flung away in the past, you now see it in the possession of another. So I believe something in my mother must rhyme in me. She in her small hall of mirrors and I in mine.
He goes about his task elliptically; only gradually do you realize the web of connections that tie him to the village where his mother had grown up. But there are gaps in that web, and Stitch, true to his nickname, slowly attempts to stitch them up. And he does so, no longer as a memoirist or biographer, but a full-blown novelist, inventing an inner truth from the few fragments of fact that he can unearth.

The book will eventually come round full circle, as most of the mysterious characters in Part One are brought into the real world. Yet the gift of Part Two is to introduce a new character with the marvelous name of Marsh Felon. The son of a family of roofing thatchers, he grows up with even more unexpected talents than The Darter, from being the genial host of a weekly nature show on BBC to a lethally effective operative in the War and its aftermath. It is a brilliant feat of alchemy on Ondaatje's part that the figure who returns the novel to the light of day should also be its loveliest source of romance.
Facts, dates, my official and unofficial research fell away and were replaced by the gradual story, half dreamed, of my mother and Marsh Felon. How they eventually walked towards each other without their families, their brief moment as lovers and then their retreat, but still holding on to their unusual faithfulness to each other. I had barely a clue as to their cautious desire, of travels to and from dark airfields and harbours. All I had, in reality, was no more than a half-finished verse of an old ballad rather than evidence. But I was a son, parentless, with what was not known to a parentless son, and I could only step into fragments of the story. […] I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.
Indeed he does!


Profile Image for Paula K .
417 reviews424 followers
July 6, 2019
Longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018, WARLIGHT is a brilliant and beautifully written novel. Michael Ondaatje is such a captivating storyteller.

The mysterious nature of this book is so engaging. I listened to the audiobook and was thankful that I had done so. The narrator pulls you right in with wanting to know more about this post WWII tale of two teens, 14 year old Nathaniel and his sister, 16 year old Rachel. Both parents leave behind their children to go off to Asia on a supposed business trip that takes years, and put them in the care of “The Moth” while away. The unusual and colorful lot of The Moth’s friends is so entertaining, especially The Darter. They are a bunch of smugglers and other behind-the-scene types that add to the secretive nature of the book.

Narrated by Nathaniel from the age of fourteen to adulthood, he slowly learns about his mother’s war efforts, her secrets, and dangerous espionage life. How Nathaniel pieces together the information he is seeking about the past is slowly revealed and written in such beautiful prose.

A wonderfully mysterious novel. One I aught never to forget, and an author that I will continue to read.

5 out of 5 stars

Profile Image for Seemita.
180 reviews1,583 followers
July 4, 2018
When the weapon inflicting a wound is done with its work, it hops onto to its next victim with a repugnant nonchalance. It doesn’t look back, it has barely any emotion. But it does not do the disappearing act before leaving behind the story of the 'scar' – the scar hidden inside the wound. And the thing about scars is that they are permanent, or nearly so.

Nathaniel was unfortunate to receive one such scar early on in his life, in 1945, when he was 14-years old to be precise. Those were unusual days in London because despite the departure of the ravaging winds of World War II, its destructive mark was visible everywhere around him – on his hometown, on his friends, on his family. There was apprehension behind a smile, paranoia behind a hug. And all this tentativeness suddenly morphed into something terrifying when one day, Nathaniel’s parents left his sister and him with a caretaker to pursue better professional opportunities in Asia. Nathaniel never remained the same since that day.

Conjuring the impressions of life and its shadows in the rear-view mirror of his main protagonist many years hence, Ondaatje creates a poignant picture of faith and forgery. Amid the fluctuating identities of his caretaker, the caretaker’s friend, his father, his mother, his former girlfriend, his neighbour, his colleagues at the government office and the thin-film- like-people who pass by his life, facts and fantasies merge and almost nothing seems to have stood the test of time. One is almost never done with the war because its noxious trail makes deep trenches and doggedly makes re-appearance in the form of post-war military vigilance and intelligence surveillance . The evaluations Nathanial undertakes in the flashback are more pregnant with thoughts than reality, implying the brutal impact of war which drives us towards a wishful 'what if' than a morbid 'what'.

Ondaatje’s writing is luminous and gathers its most gorgeous dazzle when adorning the nerves of quotidian life.
We walked between the white-painted beehives and she produced from her apron pocket a wedge to raise the sodden ribs of wood so we could look into the lower level of the hive, the bees assaulted suddenly by sunlight.
The story is, perhaps, his way of conveying that even the most scarred ones have to carry the infinite (and punishing) body of life on their backs and thus, the least the privileged ones can do is to pause and utter a word of gratitude instead of slurring spurts of venom.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
August 3, 2018
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018

There is plenty to like about this book - it is always readable, the plotting is clever and some of the stories are fascinating, but for me it never quite lived up to its potential.

The opening draws you in quickly: "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.". The narrator Nathaniel spends the first part of the book reminiscing about his teenage years in the odd company of "The Moth", who becomes his and his elder sister Rachel's guardian and his shadowy acquaintance "The Darter", who involves him in petty criminal activities like greyhound smuggling. It soon becomes apparent that the parents are not what they seem, but Nathaniel is too busy pursuing his first love to understand what is happening.

This part of the book ends suddenly in a violent incident which ends with him being reunited with his mother, who has been leading a double life working in the intelligence services.

We then move forward a few years to find Nathaniel conveniently working in the agency's archives, where he attempts to piece together his mother's story and understand his own.

While the research is impressive and covers some very interesting subjects, some of it seemed shoehorned in, and although some of Nathaniel's deductions are explained, parts of the story lapse into omniscient narrator territory. We are also expected to accept a character with the unlikely name Marsh Felon.

I did enjoy parts of this book a lot but I don't see it as a potential winner, particularly so soon after Ondaatje won the Golden Booker.
Profile Image for Karen.
573 reviews1,114 followers
August 6, 2018
A very different sort of coming of age story, with the most dramatic first sentence to entice you into this world.

1945. Post war, bombed out London. Nathaniel and Ruth.. teenage brother and sister left in the care of a man called “The Moth” a shady character, while their parents go away
to Singapore.

A mysterious tale that is full of adventure ..and secrets that Nathaniel becomes aware of as he ages.

My first Michael Ondaatje novel. Will be reading more of him!
Profile Image for Hanneke.
325 reviews324 followers
September 28, 2018
A wonderful and above all very mysterious novel. The mystery remains largely unrevealed. Two teenagers are abandoned by their parents who apparently still had undercover operations abroad to perform after the ending of WW-II. These activities are obviously so important that they leave their children in the care of trusted caretakers. These men don’t reveal anything to the children as to the predicaments their parents are in. Thus, these children’s lives feel like they are living on drifting sands, because nothing is certain and it is impossible to find out the truth what happened to their parents and where they are. The mother remains an enigma and her past obscure, even when she re-emerges from her travels after years abroad. Only tiny fragments of her past are revealed. Despite frantic searching, the son will never find out the whole truth.

The language of the book is very poetic and intriguing. I wonder why this book has not been chosen for the Booker Prize shortlist for 2018. In my opinion, this is a special book and Booker Prize worthy!
Profile Image for Valeriu Gherghel.
Author 6 books1,291 followers
October 14, 2021
3, 5.

„Nimeni nu știe cine este deținătorul adevărului. Oamenii nu sînt cine sau unde credem noi că sînt. Și mai e cineva care privește dintr-un loc necunoscut”.

Toată lumea se plînge că n-a putut pricepe acest roman. Nici eu nu l-am priceput, dar măcar nu mă plîng. N-are rost să te văicărești că ai terminat o carte. Ar trebuie să te bucuri. Așa cred.

La nivel literal, romanul povestește viața a doi copii (Rachel și Nathaniel Williams) în timpul și după WW2. Copiii sînt lăsați în grija unui grup de civili din care se detașează eleganta și fina Olive Lawrence (geograf și etnograf, vorbește pînă și aramaica), Molie (un ins calm și cumpănit, numele lui adevărat e Walter) și Zvîrlugă (un traficant de ogari, fost boxer, pe numele adevărat Norman Marshall, un bărbat cu un suflet foarte larg, nu vă spun de ce). Rachel are crize de epilepsie și se liniștește doar cînd Nathaniel e lîngă ea.

Acțiunea se tulbură din momentul în care cineva încearcă să-i ucidă pe copii. Înțelegem dintr-o dată că părinții celor doi n-au plecat într-o simplă excursie prin lume. Nici nu era vreme de excursii în acei ani. Sesizăm, în plus, că grupul de binevoitori are legătură cu Serviciile secrete și că a fost angajat să-i păzească pe copii. Mă opresc cu rezumatul aici. Și așa am dezvăluit mult prea mult.

Anii trec. Nathaniel a crescut și vrea să știe cine e, cine a fost cu adevărat mama lui, Rose Williams. Începe o investigație chinuitoare, fiindcă nu are acces la date (nu are acces imediat și nu are acces la toate). Locuiește cu ea într-o casă de vacanță, are unele discuții (Rose e o fire taciturnă), dar identitatea ei reală i se sustrage. Știe doar că e mama lui, dar nu-i suficient, asta înseamnă a nu ști aproape nimic. E băiatul ei, au o legătură de sînge. Nathaniel ar vrea să știe totul despre ea, dar, prin definiție, o astfel de cunoaștere nu e cu putință.

Cred că abia acesta e nivelul de adîncime al cărții. Dacă nu mă înșel, Michael Ondaatje vrea să spună că posibilitatea noastră de a-l cunoaște pe celălalt (oricît de apropiat) e întotdeauna limitată. Un om poate avea mai multe identități, mai multe chipuri, mai multe „euri”. Nimeni nu e transparent nici pentru sine și nici pentru semeni. Chiar dacă Rose Williams i-ar povesti în amănunțime ce a făcut în război și de ce, ființa ei i-ar rămîne la fel de enigmatică. Poți afla totul despre un om, îi poți verifica biografia, dar asta nu înseamnă că ai înțeles cine e. Omul rămîne opac pentru om.

Cunoașterea de sine e o iluzie, cunoașterea celuilalt - o iluzie și mai mare. Trăim, de fapt, printre străini...
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,411 followers
June 11, 2018
What a beautiful book this is, and how it reminds us how many people go before us, unsung, unremarked, unremembered. A teenaged boy and his slightly older sister find themselves attending separate but proximate boarding schools rather suddenly one year while their parents have taken off for Singapore. The schools are not happy matches and the kids meet up and decide to run away. They return home where a curious bachelor holds fort in their absence. The teens begin a whole new type of education.

The central mysteries in the novel unfold gradually, some we are never privy to. One cannot but thrill to the fascinating similarity between this story and John LeCarré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, about an impressionable boy and an incorrigible teacher.

The boy and his sister find their way among an oddball group of scammers and outsiders, none of whom want the wider world to know what they are doing. When the teens find their mother's trunk--the one she packed for Singapore-- hidden in the basement, much confusion and uncertainty ensues.

I listened to the audio, beautifully produced by Penguin Random House and read by Steve West. Audio is a wonderful way to enjoy this title, though truthfully, the Alfred A. Knopf hardcover is a thing of beauty.
Profile Image for Dianne.
559 reviews906 followers
July 13, 2018
Quiet, contemplative coming-of-age/historical fiction novel set in England in 1945 just after World War II ends. Fourteen year old Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel have been left with a mysterious caretaker, whom they dub "The Moth," while their parents travel to Singapore for a year for business. And yet - nothing and no one are what they seem. The unveiling of what is really going on and who their parents and the dubious friends are is a slow reveal, but Ondaatje's stellar writing and the moody, dreamy atmosphere he calls forth kept me spellbound.

Just lovely - this is my first Ondaatje novel (I KNOW!!) but it won't be my last. I'd be very surprised if this didn't end up on the Booker longlist in a few weeks. A 4.5 for me, but I may come back and change my rating to a 5 if this continues to linger in my heart and mind.

Profile Image for Faith.
1,843 reviews516 followers
July 24, 2020
Warlight was the faint illumination that guided people during the blackouts. In this book it's a guide through a personal history.

Nathaniel was 14 and his sister Rachel almost 16 in 1945 when their parents left for a year's stay in Singapore, leaving the children in the care of their lodger who they called The Moth. The Moth filled their home with dubious, possibly criminal, characters including a greyhound smuggler called The Darter. What seemed like it was going to be a coming of age tale turned into Nathaniel's attempt to reconstruct the story of his mother Rose's life. The father (whose past may have been even more mysterious than Rose's) and Rachel basically disappear from the book after Part One.

As an adult, Nathaniel was recruited by the Intelligence Service and used his job to try to trace Rose's movements during and after World War II. All sensitive documents were destroyed after the war and even in the 1950s most people who had provided vital services during the war still refused to talk about it. Accordingly, Nathaniel's search was a combination of research, guesswork, memory and imagination as he found the links between Roses's past and his present.

"And by the time a war grew again in Europe, he had become a 'Gatherer' and 'Sender Out' of young men and women, luring them into silent political service—because of what? perhaps some small anarchy he glimpsed in them, an independence they needed to fulfill—and releasing them into the underworld of the new war. A group that eventually included (unknown to her parents) Rose Williams..." Rose was a fascinating and enigmatic character whose life of bravery, danger and love was slowly revealed in flashes. The book shifts back and forth in time and there are no tidy conclusions. None of that bothered me. It's a little slow moving at times but I was never bored.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,774 reviews1,253 followers
August 5, 2018
Now longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and with a postscript to my review added after its longlisting.

So we began a new life. I did not quite believe it then. And I am still uncertain whether the period that followed disfigured or energised my life. I was to lose the pattern and restraint of family habits during that time and, as a result, later on, there would be a hesitancy in me, as if I had too quickly exhausted my freedoms. In any case I am now at an age where I can talk about it, of how we grew up protected by the arms of strangers. And it is like clarifying a fable, about our parents, about Rachel and myself and The Moth, as well as the others who joined us later. I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this. Someone is given a test to carry out. No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are. And there is someone who watches from an unknown location.

The novel starts in 1945: the parents of the 14 year old first party narrator Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel, move in turn to Singapore, where the father is sent by Unilever, leaving the children in their family home and in the care of a family friend and lodger, who they have nicknamed “the Moth”. We quickly intuit (as does Nathaniel) that his mother Rose served in intelligence in the World War.

After a very short-lived and unhappy stay in boarding schools, Nathaniel and Rachel return to live with the Moth and through him meet an eclectic group of chancers and characters seemingly operating beyond the boundaries of legality – and in particular a smuggler (initially of Continental greyhounds) and womaniser who they call the Darter.

Nathaniel, through work the Moth secures for him in a large hotel, meets a girl who takes him as her underage lover and the two are increasingly drawn into the Darter’s world of barges and shadowy transactions (and it seems into more obviously criminal activities); Rachel drifts away into the world of theatre while clearly seeing the Moth as (at the least) a pseudo father. Later Rachel and Nathaniel are involved in an attack/kidnapping. Children with an absent (for not convincingly explained reasons) father and involved in adventures involving shadowy figures reminded me a little of the children’s classic The Railway Children.

A later section is set years later – Nathaniel, now 28, buys a cottage in a Suffolk/Waveney village in The Saints (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sai...) – close to where he was taken by his mother as a young man, after a period at school in America. The cottage is owned by Sam Malakite – a man who looked after Nathaniel during that earlier period. Nathaniel works in the Secret Service – officially looking through and cleaning up archives covering post-war actions by the UK Secret Service in Italy/Yugoslavia

Along with a handful of others, I sifted through the files and dossiers that still remained … in order to make recommendations as to what might need to be re-archived or now eradicated

He uses the unsort opportunity (and some of the more dubious skills he learnt from his own post-war activities with the Darter and his associates) to find more about his mother’s immediately post-war activities, including her relationship with the Dickensian-named Marsh Felon – a character whose very name alongside the shadowy part-criminal activities of many of the characters, drew me into the world of Great Expectations (which I remember reading as a child) and whose buildeering activities reminded me of the brilliant, recent children’s novel Rooftoppers – a favourite of my oldest child.

Over time he uncovers unexpected and hidden links and connections between characters and events:

We lived through a time when events that appeared far-flung were neighbours.

A key theme of the book is the aftermath of war and how the actions and roles people adopt during the war have implications for their post war lives.

In the case of the Moth, the Darter and their associates we read

our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls who, having at one time, legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.

And later

What he’d done after the war was a consequence of the peace

As an example, there is Mr Florence who “learned his questionable talents for anaesthetics during the Italian Campaign” - and now is a beekeeper but also uses the substance he uses to fumigate his bees to make them drowsy to assist in incapacitating security guards.

For Rose – this issue is more around the danger that her wartime role and immediate post-war activities brings not just to her but to those she loves.

I began to realise that an unauthorised and still violent war had continued after the armistice, a, time when the rules and negotiations were still half lit and acts of war continued beyond public hearing

In that respect the book reminded me of The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times a book which in my review I summarised as “describing a series of tribes affected by the aftermath of war – not just disfigured ex-soldiers but small business holders, orphaned children, widows seeking consolation in spiritualism, even the rich crippled by taxes”. Here we have a different world war and a different set of people – here those drawn into the shadowy world of the secret services and wartime espionage, but still the same idea of exploring the unexpected aftermath.

Besides, hearing another version of the goat incident was a further layering in the world that I was entering. I felt I was like a caterpillar changing colour, precariously balanced, moving from one species of leaf to another.

I found a recurring symbolic theme in this book of shifting borders: the boundary between childhood and adulthood (as in the quote above); the literally shifting borders that follow in the re-partitioning of conquered territory at the end of a war: the border between war and peace and how for many participants that border is more blurred than the history books of “VE Day” and so on would have us believe; the border between legality and criminality and the temporary legitimation of the latter in times of war; and particularly the boundary between day time and night time, between dark and light.

The shade of his one large mulberry tree. We used to work mostly in vigorous sunlight, so now it’s the shade I think of not the tree. Just its symmetrical dark existence..

There are times these years later, as I write this all down when I feel as if I do so by candlelight. As if I cannot see what is taking place beyond the movement of this pencil.

He’d wake in the dark and … go down into the river valleys as night began dissolving already with birdsong. It was the hour with that tense new light …

A theme that gives the book its title

We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river ….. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was only warlight

Another key theme is the division between understanding others (and understanding the motivations for their actions and the consequences of those actions on one’s own life; and self-understanding (including coming to terms with the effects of one’s own actions – Nathaniel late in the book realising the consequences of own unexplained absence

[she was drawing] me. Just a youth looking towards something or someone. As if this was what I really was, perhaps would become, someone not intent on knowing himself but preoccupied with others.

Ondaatje has carried out (as is clear from the Afterword) significant research for this book. For example: buildering in Trinity college; the nefarious nature of post-war greyhound racing (albeit from my brief and third hand experience of this “sport” – little had changed 40 years later); chess tactics; canal networks; munitions manufacture and transport.

At times he can reproduce this research in rather excessive detail (often threatening to disturb the flow of the novel) in a way that reminded me of Ian McEwan in full flow (for example in Saturday). Where I think this novel wins out over McEwan is in the links between the research and the themes of the novel: for example: the London canal networks and coverage of the world of barges on the eastern stretches of the Thames reproduce the ideas of fluid borders – in this case between land and water; the hidden role of Waltham Abbey in munitions manufacture mirrors the hidden roles of many of the characters in the story in wartime

that familiar false modesty of the English which included absurd secrecy or the the cliché of an innocent boffin was somewhat like those carefully painted formal dioramas that hid the truth and closed the door on their private selves

Overall this was my first book by this author. I found it quietly impressive and very evocative – most of all in the way that as I read it I was reminded and transported to the world of so many other books of both recent years and of my childhood.

Postscript. The ability of this book to link across to other books has continued on its longlisting.

The theme of the liminal and the watery setting is very reminiscent of Everything Under

The story line of characters struggling to adapt to peace time life after WWII, the late City setting and the emphasis in the contrast between light and dark (and the shadowy areas in between) is all held in common with The Long Take

Generally I have seen this book criticised for its level of control and remoteness and for its lack of unpredictability or passion - I can understand that criticism. This book is a master author in full (perhaps too full) control of his skills and in that elect reminded me of the recent Nobel Prize winning Kazuo Ishiguro.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,509 followers
August 14, 2018
What a terrific read, charming and nostalgic on the adventures of childhood as with his delightful "The Cat's Table", and thrilling over the persisting dangers of past transgressions in the name of country, as in his “Anil’s Ghost.” Here we have a narrator, Nathaniel, at far post-war perspective, recounting his shaken world after his parents disappeared on him and his sister in their adolescence in London right after World War 2, leaving them in the care of a shady character they call “The Moth”. When he was 14 and his sister Rachel 16 his father left their London home on some kind of business trip and later their mother packed a trunk and set out on an unspecified long trip, neither one returning or writing. Like a prestidigitator, this fictional memoirist gives us a menu of the messages his tale will convey:

In any case, I am now at an age where I can talk about it, of how we grew up protected by the arms of strangers. And it is like clarifying a fable, about our parents, about Rachel and myself, and The Moth, as well as others who joined us later. I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this. Someone is given a test to carry out. No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are. And there is someone who watches from an unknown location.


I feel the need to share some sample windows on the author's writing talent and play with this kid's set-up. I reveal nothing about critical choices made by Nathaniel, and only hope to whether your appetite with some of the input his developing mind and morality is taking in.

The siblings’ imagination soon comes up with a guess that their parents are on some discreet mission related to their war efforts. The night-creature “friend” of their parents moves into their home but assumes a loose guardianship. Until they go off to boarding school in the fall, they have incredible freedom. Rachel uses it to essentially run away from their limbo situation while Nathaniel applies himself to the solving of the mystery of his parent’s lives. He starts with trying to figure out what kind of person their caretaker is:

Let me admit there were times when I thought the Moth was dangerous. There was an unevenness to him. …The Moth breaking apart an order that should have existed safely in our house. You witness it when a child hears a joke that should be told only to an adult. This man we thought of as being quiet and shy now seemed dangerous with secrets.

The Moth invites Nathaniel to work with the company for which he manages banquets for, such as loading trucks and dishwashing in the kitchen. The man disappears for several hours each day, only sometimes in connection to a horseracing addiction. The vivid scenes of our hero amid the multicultural, polyglot community of workers capture his sense of wonder about the adult world and his ability to admire them for their common human core despite questionable morals or sanity. For example, a one point the crew at the massive dishwashing task breaks out into sexual bragging, and one man takes them aback over his tender tale of being initiated into lovemaking by his kindly middle-aged piano teacher:

Then the anecdotes about sex began, where words like “quim” were used—and which involved sisters or brothers or mothers of best friends who seduced and educated youthful boys and youthful girls with a generosity and lack of ownership most of them would never witness in real life. The drawn-out, careful lessons of intercourse in all its varieties, described by Mr. Nkoma, a remarkable man who had a scar on his cheek, took the whole lunch break, and I would end up washing dishes and pots for the rest of the afternoon, barely recovering from what I’d heard.

Soon enough Nathaniel is in his own love story, and sweet it is in its time. Mum’s the word from me, so your enjoyment might be fresh.

Meanwhile, The Moth is hosting more and more gatherings of cronies, and the first hint of nefarious activities in his crowd comes to light:

At midnight I’d see the stairwell and living room brightly lit. Even at that hour the talk was never casual. There was always tension and inquiry over urgently needed advice. “What’s the most undetectable drug to give a racing dog?,” was a question I heard once. For some reason my sister and I thought such conversations were not unusual. They felt familiar to how The Moth and our mother had once talked about their war activities.

At such gatherings we soon meet and come to spend time a man the siblings call “The Pimlico Darter”, a name based on his moniker from a boxing career in his youth. He gains their trust by quick, effective action during one of Rachel’s epileptic attacks. Nathaniel eventually takes work with him transporting “cargo” around in small barges on the Thames and connected canals at night. I protect you from any knowledge of what that was about, but I do want to convey my total enchantment with these shady adventures and the sense of empowerment it provided and contributed to nurturing healthy self-development by Nathaniel.

The quest of Nathaniel’s to learn all about his mother’s life eventually makes some progress and takes a serious turn. Just when we are realizing there are no real enemies in this tale, a more adult reality suddenly takes form. The Moth tried to convey that to the pair at the beginning, warning them that they needed to be prepared for “schwer”, which in Mahler’s scores meant “difficult” and “heavy”. Nathaniel felt at the time: “It was a strange warning to be given to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

This blend of a warm-hearted atmospheric story about growing up with a darker morality play about the delayed consequences of family secrets felt masterful to me. This one if my favorite of five reads of Ondaatje’s his work so far (oddly missing his most acclaimed “The English Patient”).
Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,509 followers
August 20, 2018
The narrator is a sixteen year-old boy, at the start. He has an older sister. The Second World War has just ended. But there are, you know, loose ends. His parents say they must go to Singapore, and quickly. Business. No need to disrupt the children's school. They'll be reunited soon.

But parents lie.

Before they learn the truth they learn avuncular lessons.

A woman takes them into the woods in the dark, and speaks as a poem, or song: "It's a warm evening . . . and the pitch of the crickets is in D. . . . They have a sweet whistle, but it's made of the rub of their wings, not by breath, and this much conversation means there will be rain. That's why it's so dark now, the clouds are between us and the moon. Listen."

And this from their primary guardian:

Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning "difficult." "Heavy." We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no one relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore. "'Schwer,'" he'd say, with his fingers gesturing the inverted commas, and we'd mouth the word and then the translation, or simply nod in weary recognition. My sister and I got used to parroting the word back to each other--"schwer."

There will be many schwer moments. And a gradual reconstruction of facts. Ondaatje takes his time. Our narrator will be reminded of a song he heard once or twice a week at home: Schumann's Mein Herz ist schwer. You may know the song, usually played as a lieder with piano accompaniment. I have tried my best to like Lieder but have mostly failed. Then I found a transcription where a viola takes the voice's place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gI8T9...

Much better, if you want to feel the sorrow in this book. (And, see the comments below about the weird connections in a reading journey).

If a wound is great you cannot turn it into something that is spoken, it can barely be written. There must be a word for a statement that is refuted by its very utterance.

When I started reading this I chanced upon this thought on some social media site: Few items are made from paper and the best poetry isn't written on them. A call to helping arms. But not true. Because this is the best poetry.

I do not need to know the color of hair or what shape the ears. Tell me who the character is.

-- He had a river body that showed accent only on land.

and . . .

-- She thrilled to open spaces and weather nights.

and do not elaborate beyond this when a child asks his mother:

"What did you do that was so terrible?"
"My sins are various."

I closed this book, thinking as the narrator did:

We are foolish as teenagers. . . . But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do?

This is a special book.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,430 reviews810 followers
October 9, 2021
5★ (for both the audio and print editions)

“. . . the war years when blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.”

London, 1945. So much of life is happening in the shadows that young Nathaniel is having a hard time figuring out what or whom to believe. He relates the story, sometimes firsthand accounts and sometimes pieced-together information he’s pick up or eventually researched.

“l was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen, and they told us we would be looked after in the holidays by a guardian, as our mother called him. . . Rachel had already told me she suspected he worked as a criminal.”

His name is Walter, but the kids nickname him ‘The Moth’ and remain suspicious of him, particularly since he knows nothing about children or cooking, and his friends seem to be as questionable and dodgy as he is. Some float in and out of the story, but Norman, aka The Pimlico Darter’ - he was a welterweight boxer – becomes a permanent fixture.

Why do they need a guardian? It’s the War Years, and kids are expected to accept. When their mother says their father is being transferred to Asia for a while and she is packing to join him, why would they doubt her? They help her pack, and the long time she takes to decide what she needs, the more Nat wonders what’s going on.

“Our mother was about to be altered. She would evolve into something invisible to us. Perhaps for Rachel it felt different. She was more than a year elder. It may have looked theatrical to her. But for me the act of continual reconsidering and repacking suggested a permanent disappearance.”

Again, it’s the War Years, and people have been on the move, doing unusual things which they don’t explain to children. It’s unsettling, but the Moth sends the kids off to boarding school, which solves all of his guardianship problems. He hasn’t reckoned with their resourcefulness. The kids escape school, scarper off home, and find themselves becoming part of the colourful population that comes and goes from “Walter’s house”, as the Darter refers to it. That is also a little unsettling.

When the Moth is away, the Darter takes them out in the dead of night on road trips to pick up what are presumably illegally imported greyhounds.

“. . . while Rachel and I and sometimes three greyhounds squabbled in the back on the way to Whitechapel. We were not even certain that the dogs belonged to him.
. . .
Was this even his car? I wondered, for I noticed the number plates on the blue Morris were frequently changed. But The Moth was content to move in The Darter‘s slipstream. Shy people are drawn to such types for camouflage. In any ease, the tensions we felt whenever The Moth left home were the result not of our guardian’s absence but of the knowledge that The Darter had permission to oversee us with that grudging, uninterested concern.”

We also discover the world of the barges that travel up and down all the rivers of England, again in the dead of night. Nat and Rachel help load and carry whatever it is with the Darter and enjoy the relative freedom of movement.

“. . . during the Blitz, when there was just warlight, the river dark save for one dimmed orange light on bridges to mark the working arch for water traffic, a quiet signal in the midst of the bombing, and the barges ablaze, and shrapnel frapping across the water. . . ”

This is a story of dark and shadows with occasional glimpses of truth, the same way that when lightning flashes during the darkest storm you get the briefest, blinding, terrifying look at everything around. If you get a few flashes in a row, you might find your way. Such were the London nights of 1945 – the brief lights of war, the flashes of bombs, the dim light on a bridge arch.

“There are times when I want to place those moments when we were in the cuts and canals north of the Thames into other hands, in order to understand what was happening to us. I had lived a mostly harboured life. Now, cut loose by my parents, I was consuming everything around me. Whatever our mother was doing and wherever she was, I was strangely content. Even though things were being kept from us.”

Between the stories from their youth, Nat speaks of stories from his mother’s youth, particularly about a time when she was very young and a family of thatchers was working on her family’s roof. The youngest boy falls off and is put to bed in his mother’s house, where she is assigned (at the age of eight!) to look after him.

Do we need to know this? Yes indeed, but much later, and it’s another fascinating piece of Nat’s puzzle.

When he’s fifteen, he falls in love with a wild child who calls herself Agnes Street, the name of the place where they have their first romantic rendezvous in a vacant house for sale. He begins to find his own feet, but we see less and less of Rachel.

“Agnes of World's End. Of Agnes Street, of Mill Hill, and Limeburner's Yard where she had lost that cocktail dress. I knew even then I needed to keep this part of my life away from The Darter and The Moth. Theirs was the world l was living in after my parents disappeared. And the world of Agnes was where I now escaped to alone.”

As an adult wading through the archives, Nat unexpectedly finds how deeply he and his sister were embroiled in the war themselves, which brings the book to a most satisfying conclusion. I’m not saying all questions are answered, but at least I feel I understand why they can’t be.

Ondaatje is well known as a terrific writer, and no wonder. This is a totally absorbing book, and I loved it.

I enjoyed both the epub edition and the Audible audio narrated by George Blagden, who had just the right tone for the characters and the times.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,133 reviews8,133 followers
July 25, 2018
[3.5 stars]
A very good novel. Ondaatje has a way of capturing the reader, transporting them and creating a rich atmosphere. There's clearly a lot of research done for this story—though at times evidently too much, perhaps, as it tends to get a bit verbose and bog down the narrative. But I loved Nathaniel as a main character and coming to understand things in shadows and glimpses as he discovers them himself. It's an intriguing story with lovely writing.
September 24, 2018
3.5 - 4 hard to call stars
My reviews can be seen here: https://yayareadslotsofbooks.wordpres...

We probably will never know all there is to know about war, and the bravery of some who fought in it.
It's 1945 and London has been bombed again and again by the Luftwaffe, left in a deplorable state at the conclusion of the war. The city and its residents are reeling and in this tale we meet two young children, Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel. They have been literally deserted by their parents, left in the care of a man, a man they called The Moth, who is shadowy and shady. Their parents have gone off to a position in the Orient and the children are left to lead a life which is lacking in the most basic things that children require. It appears to them that the Moth has a criminal nature and as the story continues, we meet other people who seem to be living within a dream state. They drift in an out of the children's lives and leave an atmosphere where nothing is clear, all is murky. Nathaniel grows up and in the 1950s, working in a government department, he begins to piece together a world in which nothing is as it was suppose to be.

It is a world of spies, of secrets, of a time where no one trusted anyone and those who worked as spies, covered their tracks for theirs was a world of danger not only to themselves but also to their family. As Nathaniel learns and grows he discovers his mother's role in the war.

This story is told in two parts, that of a brother and sister abandoned and then later when Nathaniel attempts to piece together the connections, the roles, and the parts that were played by the people who surrounded him especially his mother. It becomes Nathaniel's story. What is the truth as Nathaniel tries to figure out the complex relationship that ultimately exists between his mother and he?

Told with beautiful prose, this telling is as murky as the life of its characters. “the lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out” Nathaniel seeks answers and what he finds is not what he ever expected. There is a darkness, a moodiness to the telling, an oddness that is riveting as warlight is a dark murky light that only partially lights up an area.

Once again, my local library has provided me with many hours of thoughtful reading.
Profile Image for Liz.
2,017 reviews2,515 followers
August 8, 2022
Warlight is a coming of age, in depth character story. People come and go through Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives, like ocean waves. In, out. It’s 1945 and in a weird twist, their parents have left for Singapore leaving these two teenagers in the hands of a friend nicknamed “The Moth”. His friends, many of whom seem to have shady, nefarious lives, take the kids under their wings. As The Moth tells the kids at one point, these folks had permission to do things during the war that would be considered sketchy at other times. Not all were able to adjust back.
Don’t go into this expecting a fast paced story. It meanders, introducing us to these odd characters. As the book progresses, Nathaniel takes a job that allows him to research their mother’s life during the war. And he learns more about that cast of characters that kept Rachel and him safe. I felt I learned more about aspects of the time during and after WWII.
The story is told primarily from Nathaniel’s POV. There were things about Rachel’s life that were hinted at that were never answered because of this.
This is a sad, somewhat haunting story. My feelings toward Rose went back and forth.
I listened to this book, which probably wasn’t the best medium. It wasn’t that Steve West was a bad narrator. It was more that it was hard to stay focused on a story that was this dense and slow moving.
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