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
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