“You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.”

— "Warlight"

Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Warlight is narrated by Nathaniel, first as a teenager and then as a twenty-nine-year old, recounting events that took place towards the end of the Second World War. Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are told in 1945 that their parents are relocating from London to Singapore, ostensibly for their father’s work with Unilever. The children are to be left in the care of two men “who may have been criminals”.

It is wartime. Existing rules of conduct do not seem to be relevant any more – “we had broken free, adapting to fewer rules, less order”. Nathaniel writes: “There are times these years later, as I write all this down, when I feel as if I do so by candlelight.”

A strange household

The children continue to live in the house of their parents. It is an odd household, a cobbled-together group, with “The Moth”, earlier a lodger, now their guardian. Drifting in and out are regulars like the Pimlico Darter, erstwhile boxer, now mixed up in the illegal world of greyhound racing, who has a string of girlfriends whom he brings over (“I like women smarter than me”). One of them is the inexplicably surprising choice of geographer and ethnographer Olive Lawrence – independent and self-sufficient, who seems to exist “in a state of separateness from all the others”. But once the children grow familiar with the ways of the Moth and the Darter, things become more interesting, for “they were to us wondrous doorways into the world”.

With these two, Nathaniel and Rachel learn about the flickering, shadowy parts of wartime London, which have been carefully put down on a map by the former as a teenager. Each week Nathaniel would draw detailed maps radiating out to the rest of the world, making sure to include any alteration – “I needed a safe zone”. He plots the changes meticulously, even if they are not obvious to the casual eye. However, “differences did exist in two seemingly identical panels”.

Nathaniel’s search for a safe zone stretches beyond the war years to adulthood, when he decides to investigate the truth about his mother. The wondrously luminous yet shadowy world that he and Rachel were introduced to consisted of the jubilantly illegal profession of greyhound racing, travelling the waterways of London by night delivering dogs, working at hotels, and theatre and opera. Besides, of course, the world that wafted in with the visitors to their house at night, in the form of characters like Mr Florence the beekeeper, shy Arthur McCash the limerick-teller, and Citronella the couturier.

“The house felt more like a night zoo,” Nathaniel says, “with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer.”

Devotee of detail

There is much more. Tiny and accurate details are provided of many things: Rachel’s epileptic fits, the tenderness with which the Darter responds to these – having learnt while treating greyhounds or slipping Luminal (a barbiturate used in the treatment of epilepsy) to them before the start of a race to make them drowsy – facts about the mostly migrant staff at the Criterion where Nathaniel and the Moth are employed, the precision with which all of them work without revealing their true identities.

For instance, there’s Harry Nkoma, a dishwasher at Sink One, a storyteller who speaks of the piano lessons he enjoyed with Mrs Rafferty in the town of Ti Rocher, four thousand miles from Piccadilly Circus. It is only a charming but made-up story, until Nathaniel encounters “his educated hands riffling the keys in a sultry and wise way, so it was impossible not to be thereby amazed at the truth of what we had thought were his earlier fictions”.

For Nathaniel, strangers replace the family. He learns a lot from them, but also keeps his distance, savouring his time in these half-lit moments.

As the New York Times literary critic Dwight Gardner says of the Canadian writer of Sri Lankan origin, “He’s a devotee of curious detail.” An unsurprising observation, given what Ondaatje said of his writing process in September 2017: “During those early stages of handwriting the novels, I sometimes need a few visual breaks along the way. I might stick in someone’s poem fragment, just a few lines, or perhaps a stray visual image of a party at Oxford where quite a few are drunk that I came across in a magazine. There might be perhaps some subliminal influence.”

There is also the story of the mysterious mother, Rose – or “Viola”, as some remember her. After their father left for Singapore, the teenagers watch their mother prepare for her imminent departure too by meticulously packing a large trunk for life in the tropics. Long after she has left, they discover her packed trunk in their basement.

The mystery is resolved years later by Nathaniel, when he is recruited to work in the Foreign Office archives. While he does not get the information he is seeking ten years after his mother’s death, quite by accident he meets an old acquaintance of his hers, Marsh Felon, in the corridors of the building. Felon, who belongs to a family of roof-thatchers, was eight years older than Rose, but they met when he and his family went to repair her family home in Suffolk. Later, Nathaniel discovers the connection between them, that Felon, a “rural boy” and one of the best of British Intelligence, the “war-skilled gentry”, had recruited Rose.

What the war did

In her 2007 introduction to Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion, Anne Enright writes “Ondaatje is much praised for the way he ‘decentres’ history”, and that “he is the presiding genius of a kind of clear-eyed male fiction”. Both statements hold true a decade later with Warlight. As Hermione Lee says of Ondaatje in the New York Review of Books, “He casts a magical spell, as he takes you into his half-lit world of war and love, death and loss, and the dark waterways of the past.”

There is layer upon layer of details about each character, painstaking descriptions of the topography and the immense numbers of landscapes documented or referred to in various maps, all of them displaying the ugly underbelly of a broken society, a war-torn community, a ragtag mix of individuals drifting through life till they find an anchor. It is not the story of the heroic soldier, but of anti-heroes like Felon, or of seemingly societal detritus like the Moth and Darter – whose secrets are revealed later.

Ondaatje etches all this in a lyrical novel, almost as if it is poetry in prose. As Enright says, “It makes me think you can progress through time like a poet. It makes me think you can do whatever the hell you like with time.”

In an interview to CBC Radio, Ondaatje said “Warlight is not a war novel. ‘Warlight’ is an invented word. At one moment in the book, I describe the River Thames at night during the war. With all the arches of a bridge crossing the river, there is only one arch that can be used safely. There is a small, yellow light at the top of that arch – an important clue for those using the river at night. That small, lit thing gives you an unusual perception of a time and a place. I wanted to write a tone or a kind of light to suggest that time for those around before and after the war.”

Warlight is an exceptionally beautiful ode, an elegy to the war, while exploring those fuzzy liminal edges of existence that become apparent during a conflict, whether in the literal flicker of the small, yellow light or in metaphorical form. It makes visible the “unknown brave old world”.

Warlight, Michael Ondaatje, Penguin Books.