Warlight

by Michael Ondaatje.

The story of Nathan’s narrow beam of a life.

Ondaatje’s writing has a richness and depth that is rare. His melodic poetic wordplay is a craft beyond compare. His metaphors sublime. As with one of my all-time favorite novels, The Cat’s Table, he returns to the table metaphor often in this work.

The war light itself shines on Nathaniel and his world in England after WWII. The story is told through his narrow lens which is unfortunately dulled by a personality lacking curiosity or emotion after being abandoned by both parents in his early teen years.

Rose, Nathaniel’s enigmatic and remote mother, had incredible adventures, which he never fully appreciates or understands. So neither do we. Her relationship with a boy then man named Felon is seen only through Nathaniel’s sketchy knowledge of their relationship. He does his best to find out some of her life, but her loss to him as his mother is all he can truly see.

The so-called criminally-inclined men with Dickensian nicknames, The Moth and The Darter become reluctant but ultimately compassionate caretakers to orphaned Nathaniel and his sister Rachel. These men are humane, nurturing and kind in ways as selfless as their parents were selfish. Their characters were also watered-down as a result of Nathaniel’s inability to recognize their full range, color and wit. So was ours. A flawed character, although beautifully drawn, Nathaniel’s need “to bury things” detracts from a more layered plot. Yet. It’s also the brilliance of the narrative.

In the end, Warlight is not The Cat’s Table as one of my all-time best reads. It doesn’t impart the same power or soul. The writing, however, is at a level well above most.

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