Lily Allen is proud to have No Shame; Warlight, a new WWII-in­spired thriller by Michael On­daatje

Michael On­daatje’s new novel is a mas­ter­class in sus­pense and un­der­state­ment

Esquire (UK) - - Contents -

We prob­a­bly can’t con­ceive of what warlight would look like. Not re­ally. Not in this era of con­stant and re­lent­less il­lu­mi­na­tion, with its head­lights and tail lights and bill­boards and shop win­dows and smart­phones.

But night­fall in wartime Lon­don was dark. Prop­erly murky. With only the muted glow of emer­gency ve­hi­cles mak­ing their way through town. It is to this that Michael On­daatje, es­teemed au­thor of The English Pa­tient, al­ludes with the ti­tle of his new novel: a hushed world of shad­ows, in which all man­ner of sur­rep­ti­tious ac­tiv­i­ties can be ob­scured.

Much like Wil­liam Boyd did with his 2006 novel Rest­less, the Sri Lankan-born Cana­dian writer — who has picked up a Booker Prize and Or­der of Canada in a ca­reer that has spanned 40 years and count­ing — ques­tions how it would feel to learn, well af­ter the fact, that your par­ents had been in­volved in es­pi­onage dur­ing World War II. Would pre­vi­ously per­plex­ing de­tails sud­denly start to make sense? Would it give you a sense of re­lief, or of anger?

We fol­low Nathaniel, an ar­chiv­ist with the For­eign Of­fice, as he rec­ol­lects his ado­les­cent years and tries to piece ev­ery­thing to­gether, start­ing when his par­ents ab­sconded in 1945 leav­ing him and his sis­ter Rachel to the care of their mys­te­ri­ous lodger, about whom they feel cer­tain of lit­tle other than their nick­name for him (“The Moth”, based on his

“shy move­ments”) and that he is some form of crim­i­nal. Other enig­matic fig­ures punc­tu­ate their ex­is­tences, which Nathaniel re­con­sid­ers with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight and the clas­si­fied doc­u­ments to which his job af­fords him ac­cess. But none re­mains more so than his mother, whose shad­owy life and death Nathaniel com­pul­sively at­tempts to un­der­stand.

On­daatje’s novel flits from pe­riod to pe­riod, re­mem­ber­ing with that war-lit hazi­ness which blurs out gen­eral de­tail for the spe­cific. (This kind of fo­cused but frag­men­tary re­mem­ber­ing is also, it should be noted, a symp­tom of trauma.) We rarely know what any­body looks like other than an out­line, nor can we pic­ture the build­ings or ob­jects, ex­cept those that pierce the mem­brane of Nathaniel’s mem­ory: car­pets in an empty house he snuck into with a girl­friend, or the sar­dines that he was given for din­ner one event­ful night.

Warlight is a sub­tly thrilling story. Not, de­spite its set­ting, be­cause it seeks to grip like a spy novel, but be­cause of the pow­er­ful at­mos­phere On­daatje in­vokes of un­ease, dis­quiet and the un­known. It’s a mas­ter­ful book, even if those look­ing for an­swers might, like Nathaniel, have to ac­cept a more sub­tle res­o­lu­tion.

Warlight (Jonathan Cape) is pub­lished on 7 June

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