Learning who you are and, perhaps more importantly, who you are meant to be isn’t easy. Nathaniel Williams, the young hero of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, spends much of his adolescence and later years pondering this.
The author of the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, Ondaatje confounds his 14-year-old protagonist from the outset when the boy’s parents announce they are going away for a year and that he and his 15-year-old sister, Rachel, will be left in the care of a strange acquaintance known as the Moth, a man they are certain is a criminal. In 1945 England, at the end of World War II, Nathaniel and Rachel must adjust to their newfound parental abandonment and accept the Moth’s warning “that nothing was safe anymore.”
As narrated through Nathaniel’s intimate firsthand perspective, the siblings test their new guardian by rebelling at school. But instead of meeting a stern lashing for their behavior, they are surprised by the Moth’s calm understanding and protective demeanor. Equally surprising is the cast of unusual characters associated with the Moth who wind up staying at their house, including Norman Marshall, better known as the Pimlico Darter, a smuggler and racer of greyhound dogs.
The siblings drift further from each other as Nathaniel finds a surrogate father in the Darter and Rachel is drawn closer to the Moth. Events cascade with the surprising return of their mother, Rose. But this isn’t a cheerful reunion, as her abandonment and silence about her secretive service in the war have a profound effect on her children and leave more questions than answers—questions that plague Nathaniel well into adulthood and long after his mother’s death.
Contemplative and mysterious, Warlight is utterly engrossing.