What a haunting and mysterious novel this is, Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. I read a hard copy with this cover—foggy and mysterious—and you can find the ebook with the blue cover below. I love how sometimes it is OK to judge a book by its cover!
Warlight is set right after World War II, in 1945, with war’s effects all around. Two children—Nathaniel and Rachel—are left behind by their parents with very interesting guardians, caretakers, visitors…but why? What are their parents doing? What does it mean when their mother, Rose, returns? Why has her life changed so dramatically at times? How will the children cope—and survive? At the start, Nathaniel, the son, is the 14-year-old narrator, putting together the puzzle pieces as best he can. At times, the point of view switches to third-person limited omniscient, to move us gently into another perspective, in a kind of, well, warlight atmosphere. Or is it still Nathaniel, once removed, as he does grow up in the novel…?
This is one of those books of great beauty. On the one hand, it can have a simple narrative style, suited to the point-of-view character; on the other hand, it’s the quiet, poetic mastery of Michael Ondaatje. I connected to it in a strangely personal way, despite it being historical fiction, and that reinforced my sense that good literature is so often the perfect blend of personal and universal. Here’s my example. I connected to this description of Rose, remembered through Marsh Felon, a man in her past who knew her as a child and now yearns for her as a woman:
He wants her in his world. He knows nothing about her adult life, that she was, for instance, hesitant and shy longer than was perhaps usual, till she stepped towards what she desired with a determination from which none could prise her away—a habit she will always have, that pattern of hesitancy at first and then complete involvement—just as later on, in the coming years, nothing will draw her away from Felon, no logic of her husband, not even the responsibility of her two children.
I connect particularly with “hesitant and shy longer than was perhaps usual” and then with the determination, and “that pattern of hesitancy at first and then complete involvement,” though I couldn’t give up my responsibility to my own two children, as she did. Or did she? And look at how that voice sort of hovers in the fog and warlight. Who exactly is seeing this, interpreting Rose? Felon doesn’t know about her adult life, it says, yet he’s the one wanting her, remembering her, seeing her again. That’s the foggy thing about the point of view.
And here’s the great universal question that stuck out for me: “Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?” I have asked that question many times.