Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
List of main characters:
Nathaniel Williams (Stitch)
Rachel Williams (Wren)
Walter (The Moth)
Norman Marshall (The Pimlico Darter)
Warlight was such a joy to read that I finished it in three days. The narrative is filled with many of the emotions of noir: betrayal, suspicion, uncertainty, ambiguity, distrust. The story starts with Nathaniel Williams’s childhood memories of his life during World War II in and around London. Part One describes what Nathaniel remembers, and it opens with a section called “A Table Full of Strangers.” The first line of the book is this:
In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. . . . (page 3)
Nathaniel Williams doesn’t understand much about his parents. He doesn’t understand why they leave him and his sister behind in the care and company of people he considers complete strangers. Both he and readers come to understand that his parents were drawn into espionage because of the exigencies of war. Great Britain was under direct attack; German spies and sympathizers were plotting to bring down the British government. Still, Nathaniel’s mother Rose seemed more dedicated and more suited to the work of espionage than most others. She continues her espionage activities after the official declaration of the end of hostilities because peace must still be negotiated and because many want revenge as a result of their wartime experiences. The declaration of peace doesn’t necessarily mean an end to hostilities.
Part Two begins with a section called “Inheritance.” As an adult, Nathaniel begins to wonder if he has inherited some of the traits that made his parents, his mother, so difficult to know, so good at keeping secrets. In Part Two, Nathaniel is now a young man. He buys a house in his mother’s childhood village; he interviews for a government job:
A decade after my mother’s death, I received an invitation to apply to the Foreign Office. My recruitment for such a post seemed initially strange. I participated in several interviews on my first day. One conversation was with an “intelligence collection body,” another with an “intelligence assessment outfit”; both, I was informed, were separate bodies seated at the high table of British Intelligence. No one told me why I had been approached, and there was no one I knew among those who questioned me intricately but seemingly casually. My earlier spotted academic record did not cause them as much concern as I had expected. I assumed that nepotism and my bloodline must have been considered a reliable entrance into a profession that trusted lineage and the possible inherited quality of secrecy. . . . (page 130)
Part Two describes Nathaniel’s early adulthood self trying to make sense out of childhood traumas and more recent sorrows. His memories prompt him, as an adult, to try to reconstruct facts out of unreliability. Nathaniel is able to piece together more than most people can about their childhood and their memories. He is hired to work in a department reviewing war archives, which he sees as a chance to piece together more than just the history of Britain at war. He hopes to learn more about his own personal history and about his mother in particular:
It sounded like drudge work. But accepting a job that included sifting through the details of the war might, I thought, be a way of discovering what my mother had been doing during the period she left us under the guardianship of The Moth. We knew only the stories of her 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 was kept awake by chocolate and the cold night air. We had known no more than that. Perhaps there was now a chance of discovering that missing sequence in her life. It was the possibility of an inheritance. . . . (page 131)
The work does bring some new and tantalizing facts to light for Nathaniel, but the more he learns, the more questions he seems to have, and the more questions he has about his mother’s role in all of it:
We were in fact the second wave of “correction.” I discovered that during the closing stages of the war and with the arrival of peace, a determined, almost apocalyptic censorship had taken place. There had been, after all, myriad operations it was wiser the public never know about, and so the most compromising evidence was, as far as possible, swiftly destroyed—in both Allied and Axis Intelligence headquarters around the globe. . . . (page 133)
Without originally intending to, Nathaniel is now involved in covert work, in keeping more secrets. And he finds that he can only go so far: Facts he can find, but how does one interpret them in the present? Can the past ever be repaired? Can going back repair what is the present?
The opening of the book, which I quoted above, certainly sets the tone for the rest of the book. But just a little bit later in the narrative, another character, Olive Lawrence, underscores the tone in a conversation with Nathaniel and his sister Rachel:
“Half the life of cities occurs at night,” Olive Lawrence warned us [Nathaniel and Rachel Williams]. “There’s a more uncertain morality then. At night there are those who eat flesh by necessity—they might eat a bird, a small dog.” When Olive Lawrence spoke it was more like a private shuffling of her thoughts, a soliloquy from somewhere in the shadows of her knowledge, an idea she was still unsure about. One evening she insisted we catch a bus with her to Streatham Common and walk its slow rise of land to the Rookery. Rachel felt uncertain in that open darkness, wished to go home, said it was cold. But the three of us kept moving forward, until we were eventually in the trees and the city had evaporated behind us. (page 56)
Nathaniel felt safe with Olive Lawrence, but his sister wasn’t quite so convinced. And even a person (possibly) representing safety gives the children a speech that is a warning as much as it describes an adventure.
The title of the novel—Warlight—is an inspiration. It suggests darkness, with just enough light to see that danger is lurking. It suggests that everything about a childhood is remembered through a prism that changes events just enough. It suggests that everything about wartime is cloaked in secrecy and, if necessary, denial, and that nothing is as it seems, even while it is happening.