Why you must read Ondaatje’s Warlight

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Rare are the novels that hook the reader from the very first sentence. In Warlight (Published by Jonathan Cape, London | Penguin Random House, Pages 290, Price Rs 599) Michael Ondaatje manages to do exactly that.

In Warlight Ondaatje makes use of the post-war settling of scores among the victors and losers in Europe to examine the human condition. So much gets left unburied at the end of a war. Ondaatje digs into that.

It is a strange, subtle war that Ondaatje narrates where brutalities are withheld and identities are camouflaged, evoking a strange suspense that creeps on you. Two teenagers, Rachel (16) and Nathaniel (14), are left to fend for themselves in Ruvigny Gardens in London in mysterious circumstances by their parents. The father boards the Auro Tudor for Singapore, never to disturb the narrative. You don’t even remember whether Ondaatje has given him any name.

It is Rose Williams, the daughter of an admiral and an intelligence officer with the British forces, who holds the centre stage in Warlight. Code named ‘Viola’, Rose pays with her own life for being an ally in the post-war government intrigue abroad.

A decade after his mother’s death, Nathaniel gets an opportunity to work with the foreign office and leaf through the archives to piece together Rose Williams’s wartime role. He considered it as “a way of discovering what my mother had been doing during the period she left us under the guardianship of The Moth and The Darter.“ There were stories of Rose’s radio broadcasts from the Bird’s nest on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel during the early stages of the war, or of a night drive to the coast, when she kept awake by chocolate and the cold night air. Nothing more. For Nathaniel, it was a chance for discovering the missing sequence in her life. There was the possibility of an inheritance.

It is Rose’s romance with Marsh Felon, a kid that fell off from the roof top of her house in a Suffolk village, that pins together the scattered elements here. Nothing will draw her away from Felon, no logic of her husband, not even the responsibility of her two children. Nathaniel and Rachel are mere off-spring that add to their moral twists and turns.

The beauty, and, then, the strength of Ondaatje’s writing is not that he takes you close to the picture. He lets you know all about the doomed existence but reminds usd that no one really understands another’s life or even death. Read, and re-read Warlight.


Michael Ondaatje is the author of several novels, as well as a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. Among his many Canadian and international recognitions, his novelThe English Patient won the Booker Prize, and was adapted into a multi-award winning Oscar movie; and Anil’s Ghost won the Giller Prize, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto.

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