Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, “Warlight,” his first in seven years, has the immediate allure of a dark fairy tale. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals,” the adult narrator begins, leading us into the shadowlands of memory.
On a summer day in postwar London, Nathaniel and Rachel, both teenagers, listen bleakly as their parents announce that they are leaving for Singapore on business, without them. “Neither Rachel nor I said a word,” Nathaniel recalls. “They had rarely spoken to us about their lives. We were used to partial stories.” The reader too is blinkered from the outset, permitted to see only what Ondaatje, a master of concealment, reveals as Nathaniel exhumes his parents’ secrets from the mire of espionage and war. “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth,” he declares decades later when the ultimate revelation strikes with quiet but lethal force. And “Warlight” is a mosaic of such fragments, so cunningly assembled that the finished pattern seems as inevitable as it is harmonious. What must happen does happen in this elegiac thriller; we just can’t see it coming.
In a bomb-cratered London “that still felt wounded, uncertain of itself,” the abandoned brother and sister grow up “protected by the arms of strangers.” A household lodger nicknamed the Moth is their official guardian. But other adults soon populate their childhood, most notably the Darter, a boxer turned dog-racing fixer who knows the ways of the river, the weather, women and thievery. There is also Olive Lawrence, a glamorous ethnographer briefly attached to the Darter, and chimerical Arthur McCash, who will say only, “Your mother is away. Doing something important.”
For the first hundred pages, all is atmosphere and allusion. Nathaniel, his first love, Agnes, and later his sister, Rachel, join the Darter as he plies London’s waterways at night, transporting greyhounds and other mysterious cargo. “What we carried was probably not dangerous, but we were never sure,” Nathaniel recalls of boxes loaded in the dark by silent men. A year passes. The sinuous narrative meanders, its desultory pace mesmerizing, and Ondaatje’s characters seem adrift on currents that are slow moving yet menacing.
Until the first shock arrives, jolting a hazy world into focus: a sudden attack, a rescue and then “I could hear Rachel’s muffled crying as we were bundled into separate vans, to be delivered to separate destinations. Where were we going? Into another life.”
The novel alights in 1959. Nathaniel, now 28, buys a house in Suffolk — a house he already knows, somehow — from Mrs. Malakite, a widow whose memory is dimming. Nathaniel’s recollections, on the other hand, are vivid though fractured. “The lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out,” he observes of his need to solve the riddle that is his mother, Rose: her childhood, her disappearance and reappearance, the scars he later glimpses on her arms. Recruited by British Intelligence to review wartime files, Nathaniel unearths details of a massacre in Yugoslavia and other fragments of the covert past that form a larger history of betrayal and revenge.
As the pattern emerges, Ondaatje imperceptibly tightens the narrative. Gradually, we see that no detail or character, however incidental, has been extraneous. An injured boy who was Rose’s childhood companion; the naturalist whose radio show she listens to years later; the deceased Mr. Malakite; a sentence from a poem; a hand-drawn map: All are relevant, everything fits. And dread too takes shape. “When he comes he will be like an Englishman,” Rose predicts in her journal, and Nathaniel, too late, wants to ask who will come and “What did you do that was so terrible?” The answer lies in the map. The truth, however, is more elusive, its territory the heart and its wounds invisible.
“No one really understands another’s life or even death,” Nathaniel learns, and this conundrum is dramatized again and again throughout Ondaatje’s work. In an early poem, “Light,” for example, he writes of family photographs animating memory, “These are their fragments, all I remember,/wanting more knowledge of them,” and in his 1992 novel, “The English Patient,” one character, recalling another, imagines “a stone of history skipping over the water, bouncing up so she and he have aged before it touches the surface again and sinks.”
Like its more immediate predecessors — “The Cat’s Table,” in particular — Ondaatje’s new novel is leaner than “The English Patient” and its focus tighter, a searchlight’s focus. At one glorious moment, for example, it captures young Nathaniel and Mr. Malakite, his rural mentor, in “the shade of his one large mulberry tree. We used to work mostly in vigorous sunlight, so now it is the shade I think of, not the tree. . . . The breeze lifted itself over the shallow hill and entered what felt like our dark room, rustling against us. . . . The ants in the grass climbing their green towers.”
In “Warlight,” all is illuminated, at first dimly then starkly, but always brilliantly.
Anna Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer in Massachusetts.
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By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf. 304 pp. $26.95