Michael Ondaatje once again bears witness to the connections between individuals and the wider world in his new novel, Warlight, writes Ashley Hay
Warlight By Michael Ondaatje Jonathan Cape, 304pp, $29.99
When I pulled my proof copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight from its envelope, it had the warmth of a somehow living thing: low and smooth and comfortable, like laying your hand on a dog. I patted its plain white cover — gold title, black name; that name — feeling this warmth on my palm. There were other things I was supposed to be doing that day, but here it was. I held off for a minute or so. Then I dived into Ondaatje’s newest world.
I was in Britain at the end of World War II, in the astonishing tranquillity of a postwar London summer garden. Ondaatje’s settings have always been shimmeringly vibrant. The opening of his first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), rolls out from one simple statement — “His geography” — into a breathtaking prose-poem of place.
And the garden in this new novel shimmers with beautiful light and air as a father explains to his children — Nathaniel (14) and Rachel (16) — that he is being transferred to the East for his job with Unilever, and that he and their mother will be leaving. The children will not go with them; they will be left at boarding schools. In their holidays, they will return to this family home in London to be overseen by a guardian, currently their lodger; a man nicknamed “the Moth”.
The rush of this: I had a sense of being pulled fast through a tunnel to emerge in the soft greens and sunshine-light of that London-time. The sheer and brutal force of these facts delivered without hesitation or explanation: the parents’ withdrawal is set against the speed at which a plane will fly them round the world and the father’s delight at his own promotion.
And then Ondaatje shows us the mother, listening, as the reader has, to the crazy facts her husband has laid out: … our mother, in a summer dress, just behind his shoulder, watched how we responded. After a while she took my sister Rachel’s hand and held it against her waist, as if she could give it warmth … seeing that I was confused, she came over to me and ran her fingers like a comb through my hair.
Rose Williams is this mother, although her name takes a while to come into the story. She watches her children absorb the idea of her disappearance. It’s August 1945. The war is supposedly “over” — its bombs, its raids, its camps, its sirens. Before the month ends, their father has left, their mother unexpectedly able to stay until school starts. This tiny pocket of grace. “Then suddenly she had to leave, for some reason sooner than expected … it was as if our mother had arranged things so there would be no tearful goodbyes.” And she’s gone.
The siblings enter their schools, only to run away from them. The Moth rearranges all the arrangements and brings them back to their London family home to live with him and the increasingly intriguing and opportunistic cast of characters with which he intersects. “The arrangement appeared strange,” Nathaniel has noted as his father first lays out its particulars, “but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war, so what had been suggested did not feel unusual. We accepted the decision, as children do.”
This is the past within arm’s reach — the past of our parents or grandparents, if not our own. And part of Ondaatje’s power has always been in creating whole and peopled worlds that we as readers not only trust and accept but also get to inhabit for a while. As he wrote in In the Skin of a Lion (1987), “the first sentence of every novel should be: ‘trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human’.”
“I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this,” says Nathaniel as Warlight begins, as if offering a glimpse into this book’s mechanics. Here’s how this will play out … except it doesn’t. In its drama and its scope, this story — Nathaniel’s and Rachel’s, and Rose’s too — takes magnificent leaps into the un- expected. In many ways, the stakes Ondaatje gives these characters to play for are higher than ever, not that the children know that. Warlight transcends the grandeur of The English Patient (1992), the visceral precision of Anil’s Ghost (2000), the forensic intimacy of Divisadero (2007) as it interrogates the turbidity and consequences of some things done in the name of war.
Between Anil’s Ghost and Divisadero Ondaatje published a book of conversations with film editor Walter Murch. In one exchange, Murch talks about actors choosing parts that represent some emotional truth about them as an individual “which pushes [them] somewhere [they have] not gone before”. “This is very precisely what writers do, or should do,” says Ondaatje. And he does. Being among Michael Ondaatje’s sentences is one of my favourite places to be. He writes, as one study of his work puts it, with “a linguistic density that evokes an almost physical response — writing that can tingle the senses”. And then he slips away, disappearing for the years it takes to make something new. In some ways, he resembles this description from The English Patient: “one of those spare men from the desert who travels from oasis to oasis, trading legends as if it is the exchange of seed, consuming everything without suspicion, piecing together a mirage”.
In some ways, he resembles Cullis, the abandoned lover in A Anil’s Ghost who “when he w wrote … slipped into the page as if it were water, and tumbled on … if not, then a tinker, carrying a hundred pots and pans and bits of linoleum and wires and falconer’s hoods and pencils and … you carried them around for years and gradually fit them into a small, modest book”.
“Small” and “modest”, though, are not quite right. Ondaatje has his own tools — structural fragments; the great vistas and moments he evokes from things only partially glimpsed; the shock of excisions and elisions; the power of apparently small or