Warlight by Michael Ondaatje review – a novel shrouded in secrecy
A boy alone in postwar London is drawn into shadowy worlds in this suspenseful yet frustrating story from the English Patient author
Sat 16 jun 2018
Michael Ondaatje likes writing about uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, not quite with the Keatsian ambition of resisting “any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, but because he relishes the idea of thoughts being fluid and characters essentially unknowable. Hence the tactics of his best-known novel The English Patient, joint winner of the 1992 Booker prize, in which a potentially very dramatic set of circumstances is generally delivered to the reader by means of hint and indirection: scenes are habitually softened by half-lights, and all action and most reflection are slowed by rich (some would say overwritten) prose. Hence, too, the procedures of his other novels, in which similarly striking narrative potential is mostly kept in check, or actually stifled. I’m thinking of the lurking crime drama and love drama that remain in the background of his shipboard story The Cat’s Table, for instance; or the absences, stoppages and indirections that prevent Anil’s Ghost – set in war-torn Sri Lanka – from becoming a straightforward war story.
Perhaps all this has something to do with Ondaatje’s less well-known life as a poet (he has published nearly twice as many collections of poetry as he has novels). Paradoxical as it might sound, in this alternative existence he often renders hard facts and moments of explosive action more directly than he does in his fiction: think of his early verse novel The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. But why? Maybe because in fiction Ondaatje feels compelled by the form itself to deal with significant events (bomb disposal, prisoners in cages, civil-war murders) but is faintly embarrassed by the risk of overextrapolating them – and so making them seem banal – in the comparatively roomy spaces of prose. This means that he ends up blurring or disguising everything. Whatever the reason, there exists at the centre of his imagination, and therefore of his work as a whole, a tussle between the urge to reveal and the instinct to suppress and/or conceal. Characteristically, it manifests and seeks to resolve itself in a profound attraction to secrets.
In Ondaatje’s new novel, his eighth, his appetite for imprecision is stronger than ever (the title itself shrouds the action in a kind of twilight: the dimmed warlight in the wake of the blitz). It opens in 1945 with the departure of 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams’s father to Singapore, ostensibly to work for Unilever, and with the disappearance of his mother, Rose, soon afterwards – probably but not certainly to join her husband overseas. This double abandonment leaves Nathaniel and his elder sister Rachel in the care of a mystery man they call The Moth, who is apparently acting on their parents’ orders, and soon allows them to swap their boarding schools for day schools and so share in the life that he has instigated in their London home. In a swirl of glimpses, one figure at least becomes clear to Nathaniel, even as his nature remains obscure: a character whose given name eventually turns out to be Norman Marshall, but who is known to our narrator as “the Pimlico Darter” – “the best welterweight north of the river”.
Nathaniel, who even at this tender age is convinced that life is best understood as a scattering of fragments, soon finds himself drawn into even more shadowy worlds. Working during his out-of-school hours in the laundry room of the Criterion hotel, he consorts with Mr Nkoma, whose elaborate storytelling confirms the unreliability of things. When his sister Rachel joins the theatre, she vanishes into a realm of make-believe; when Nathaniel works with the Pimlico Darter on the river he enters a world of mists and mellow obscurity; when he finds a girlfriend she is as shadowy in name and nature as the empty house in which they habitually meet; and when his mother eventually returns to London, there’s no clear sense of what’s she’s been up to – except that it has something to do with the war, and has landed her in such danger that she has to pack Nathaniel off to school first in America, then in the north of England, before they cautiously settle under one roof in a remote part of Suffolk.
So deep is the shading of motive and
consequence, that it’s hard not to feel a degree of impatience
Ondaatje is a skilfully deliberate writer, and these secrets inevitably generate a certain degree of suspense. Over the years his style has purified a good deal, so elements that overdecorate the prose of The English Patient are largely absent here. But so regular is the pattern of uncertainty in this opening section of the novel, and so deep is the shading of motive and consequence, that it’s hard not to feel a degree of impatience. This feeling is compounded in the second section, in which we are transported to Suffolk in 1959 to watch the now 28-year-old Nathaniel buying a cottage from the elderly Linette Malakite – who, it turns out, was formerly married to Sam Malakite, another uncertain sort of fellow, who was deputed by Nathaniel’s mother to look after him during their previous rural sojourn.
Because Linette is no longer of sound mind and Sam is dead, Nathaniel makes very little progress in discovering the story of his mother’s life, or her reasons for treating him as she did. Neither do his own memories help much. As he reminisces about affable chess games and such like, he recalls feeling that his mother was in danger – but what sort, and why, remains beyond his ken. Actual research into her past is slightly more rewarding. When Ondaatje – with an audible clashing of plot gears – sends Nathaniel to work for the Foreign Office, we are allowed to learn what his mother was up to during the war, and that she may have been implicated in some nasty business that meant her life was still at risk in peacetime.
Except we don’t really feel the threat on our pulses, since by this stage of the novel we’re either too used to living among shadows, or at risk of finding these continuing evasions rather absurd, because so predictable. Also predictable, but nevertheless a relief, is the degree of clarification that comes in the final section of the novel, where a funeral visitor – a “ghost-like” and “secretive” character named Marsh Felon (Ondaatje has always had a penchant for weird and wonderful names) – is able to shed some light. Yet, of course, even now “there is confusion and even uncertainty about what may have happened, what may have been said”.
This knowledge brings Nathaniel, and is meant to bring readers, a sense of resolution or feeling of closure, which is bolstered by a catch-up meeting with The Darter in the novel’s closing pages. And in certain obvious respects it does round things out. But the problem remains. Rather than closing the book convinced that psychological insights have been generated by Jamesian withholdings, we might equally well feel that characters have been flattened by our simply not knowing enough about them, and that our interest in their doings is diminished by the same means.
• Andrew Motion’s Essex Clay is published by Faber. Warlight is published by Cape.