Nathaniel’s mother, Rose, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. As he narrates Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje, Nathaniel talks about his slow exploration of his mother’s past as a spy and a wife—as far as he knows, because no one gives up their secrets in this book. As such, I saw two threads develop over the course of Nathaniel’s story. First, there is the realization that parents are mysterious. They had a whole life before they decided to have a children; some of those lives are very exciting. Second, I saw how a whole raft of former agents struggled to assimilate back into civilian life after the end of World War II. Spies have a hard time not being spies. All of this is written is some of the most beautiful and striking language I’ve experienced in a while.
Nathaniel is a teenager when his parents disappear. His father has a job in Singapore, where he can start over after his traumatic war experience. The idea is that Rose will follow and that the children will go to boarding school. “The Moth,” a man from Rose’s past, will be their guardian in England. That’s the plan, anyway. The plan goes almost immediately to hell when Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, escape from boarding school and refuse to go back. The first third of Warlight sees Nathaniel and Rachel taken under the wing of the Pimlico Darter (a former boxer and current greyhound smuggler) and the Moth, respectively. It’s almost Dickensian the way that these children push and are pushed into shady existences. Fifteen-year-old Nathaniel thrives in Darter’s criminal enterprises and in a series of low-wage jobs that bring him into contact with more-or-less willing teenaged girls.
I was interested enough in the details of post-war life in London to continue through the first third of Warlight. After Nathaniel and Rachel have a close brush with Rose’s wartime enemies and the narrative focus shifts back to Rose, I enjoyed the book a lot more. When he is 28, Nathaniel gets a job that brings him into contact with files about the secret war that need to be redacted. It’s the perfect opportunity for him to learn who Rose really was and what she did. I was fascinated at the perspective this book presents, that of a son trying to recreate his mother’s life from barely remembered dialogue from the Moth and others and from hints in official documentation.
Warlight is an oblique book. We learn some facts, but never really get the whole story. Like intelligence work, this book requires readers to take the few facts that Nathaniel uncovers and analyze them ourselves to try and figure out what’s going on. Because I spent so much time thinking about what happened, I consequently spent a lot of time just thinking about what happened to all of the people who were scooped up from their ordinary lives—as naturalists, wives, boxers, meteorologists—and dropped into the British war machine to defeat the Germans*. How does one go back to normal life after years spent watching one’s back for enemies, talking in code, and being generally and justifiably paranoid? Warlight shows us that this is impossible. Not only is it impossible to return to being an ordinary naturalist, wife, boxer, or meteorologist, but that paranoia will trouble and bewilder the next generation. As such, Warlight can be a heart-breaking read, especially at the end when Nathaniel learns more about what Rose was battling.
I recommend Warlight to readers who enjoy novels about World War II, but who are looking for something more philosophical and different than the usual fare. So many of these stories end with VE or VJ Day; it’s rare to find one that carries the story through the messy years immediately after the war. That Warlight is written in Ondaatje’s almost hypnotic and often perfectly detailed language on top of all this emotional and intellectual depth is pure gravy.
* For readers who would like a similar story of women trying to re-adjust to civilian life after doing incredibly important war work, I highly recommend The Bletchley Circle series.