In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel.
First sentences matter, and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight begins with a distinctly dramatic one. “In 1945, our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals” says 14-year-old Nathaniel, who with his older sister Rachel finds himself living in bombed-out London with two shady characters known as “The Moth” and “The Pimlico Darter.” Warlight starts with elements of a classic children’s adventure story, but its shadows run increasingly deep as Nathaniel, growing older, uncovers the network of deception that masks his mother’s spy-work. When the trail of factual discoveries grows cold, he imagines a past he can never truly know, composing, in effect, a dreamlike memoir of his “lost inheritance.” In Warlight, Ondaatje, now 74 years old, has written a wonderfully varied, blazingly literary, and gut-twistingly emotional story that will leave readers grateful for whatever solidity their own families can claim, though newly aware of the fundamental mystery of other lives. –Sarah Harrison Smith
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