Review by Usha Raman
“The lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out.”
“We order our lives with barely held stories”
Memory is a strange thing; it reveals the ephemeral nature of experience and the power of its reconstruction. It builds stories where none existed. And it imbues monochromatic lives with colours drawn more from imagination than life. But we need memory in order to make meaning of life, and in Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, Nathaniel’s search for the lost sequence of his mother’s life is in many ways the search for the meaning of his own. The novel is set in the confusing time after the second world war, when London is still limping back to a normalcy that will forever remain elusive, and nothing is what it seems—and neither, as Nathaniel discovers, are people.
Abandoned by their parents to the guardianship of a mysterious and unknowable man they fondly dub The Moth, Nathaniel and his sister Rachel spend their teenage years in an adventurous fog, encountering a series of not-quite-mainstream adults, none of whom seem to be engaged in easily explainable occupations. There is the Darter, a one-time boxer and greyhound-smuggling, gun-running womanizer who, unmindful of propriety or danger, takes the young Nathaniel on his nighttime river runs and introduces him to the women in his life. Among these is Olive Lawrence, a cloud-reading ethnographer who has a surprising connection with the intelligence services.
The children’s discovery of duplicity—or intrigue—begins when they find their mother’s packed trunk left behind in the basement, revealing her departure, ostensibly to join their father in his posting to Singapore, to be a charade. While Rachel takes this to be a betrayal that never be forgiven, even when her mother returns to reclaim her life with them, Nathaniel seeks to fill out the years of her absence, to fill in the shadowy outlines of a past that could, possibly, give him a sense of the person she was. And in that process, find that his own memories are fickle things, meaning one thing at one moment, rendered false the next.
It’s no coincidence that as an adult Nathaniel finds himself recruited to work in the archives of war intelligence, a fitting place in which to recover the memory of his mother, a key figure in wartime espionage, and her association with the oddly named Marsh Felon, the man who drew her into the ring of spies and away from her life in domesticity. The fragments of their story unfold in the dim light left behind by war records, buried deep in the filing cabinets of the British secret service. And in the pursuit of his mother’s life, he is forced to rearrange the meanings of his own memories—sometimes with devastating results.
Warlight has been my introduction to Ondaatje, a writer whom I have been meaning to read for years. It has left me thirsting for more of the textured prose, the spare yet powerful characterization, and the suggestive outline of plot that seem to be his forte. You want to pause and drink in the meanings that seem to speak not just to and from the characters in the book, but to your life as well. This is his eighth novel, one that The Guardian hails as another instance of “magic from a past master”. Clearly, I have a lot of magic to catch up on.