Warlight



Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje


Beautifully written but eternally slow.


Clearly super weird family dynamics, as the parents up and leave the two children, Rachel, sixteen, and Nathaniel, fourteen. The kids obviously end up with very serious abandonment and trust issues, as they are put into the care of some very questionable people. They end up being raised by spies and criminals, and while their education at their hands is unbelievably interesting, it does not make for happy, well-balanced adults.

Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises.

Everything about the family revolves around their mother, Rose, and her disappearance. No one really seems to care at all about their father, who is a complete nonstarter in the book. But she is elusive, both when she is there and when she is gone, and it is her absence that lingers over them for the years that she is completely disappeared. Even at her return, the unsettled broken feeling that hovers around them continues, as she came back far too late to repair the damage done.


There is intrigue and danger surrounding every character. Nathaniel was taken under the wing of The Darter, a former boxer and present-day thief and hustler, and gets an unruly education at all things criminal under his tutelage. But the Darter, to Nathaniel, is benevolent, sharing his life and his wisdom easily with the boy, in return for an occasional partner in crime. When Nathaniel finds him later in life, and realizes what the Darter took from him, he's not even sure if he feels betrayed.


Rachel, suffering from epilepsy and dealing with shattering seizures, never forgives for her abandonment. She finds a figure to love with their caretaker, The Moth. I never did establish entirely the extent of their relationship, whether it was father-daughter or something more. She did eventually name her child after him, which makes me suspect there was something more. But that is just speculation on my part.


Nathaniel is the one child dedicated to discovering the truth about his secretive mother and what happened to her, in his past as well as his present. He never gets fully to the bottom of what she was entangled in, and I'm not sure he comprehends her actions or how much she sacrificed for the sake of her children. I'm not sure she realizes the extent of her resentment towards her family, or her job, or both, which caused such a damaging rupture in her life. This is a book about very sad conflicted people, at a very sad and conflicted time in England's history. There is nothing light about Warlight, but it does haunt you in the aftermath, with its loneliness.