Of Life Seen At Angles
GJV Prasad
WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje Jonathan Cape, London, 2018, 299 pp., 599
December 2018, volume 42, No 12

Sometimes a slow-paced book is as unputdownable as a fast-paced thriller—Ondaatje’s Warlight is one such magical novel. It draws you into the narrative, makes you identify with the situation, nudges you (if you need the nudging) to discover the other selves and lives of characters along with the narrator/central character, speculate about the blanks that are inevitable in such readings with limited access to records and anecdotal histories, and still feel a sense of fulfilment even if you still want to know more about some of the characters., knowing fully well that you only get shadowy glimpses in warlight (with its presence during blackouts), as in candle light.

The book is about Nathaniel, one of the siblings ‘abandoned’ by their parents who have seemingly gone off to Singapore soon after the Second World War. It opens with this stark and startling sentence: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ Your interest is piqued instantly and you wonder where this seemingly dark tale is going to lead. Rachel and Nathaniel are left to live in bombed out post-War London when their father and soon their mother Rose leave for foreign shores for a better life. They are left in the care of a strange man, Walter, whom they name the Moth. This man, who doesn’t believe in cooking for himself or them, who is a supervisor at the Criterion Hotel giving out duties to a largely immigrant staff, and is involved with other, perhaps illegal, activities, is their guardian, their mentor and saviour. He is the one who talks as their local guardian to the boarding schools when the siblings run back to the house and ensures that they continue their education as day scholars and assumes responsibility for their daily lives, which is built on a lie that their mother has gone to Singapore to join their mentally unstable father.

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