21 September 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

When the Man Booker longlist was announced recently, it was Warlight that piqued my interest with its setting in post-war England.  A few days later, a customer at the library returned her copy and was promptly asked (ever the inquisitive circulation clerk) what she thought of it, to which she replied 'I think it's a masterpiece'.  A label like that sets the bar pretty high so when my hold came in soon afterwards, other reading plans would simply have to wait.  So, with a riveting first sentence, I dove it.

'In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.'

Nathaniel and Rachel are young teens, living with their parents in Ruvigny Gardens, London.  Within a few pages, their parents announce they'll be leaving for Singapore on an extended business trip for Unilever.  Their father flies on ahead with remarkably little fanfare as Rose's carefully considered wardrobe is packed into a large travelling trunk.  The teens have been enrolled in separate boarding schools and a guardian, whom Rachel and Nathaniel refer to as The Moth, has been left in charge of their home.  As Nathaniel later learns, his mother has known The Moth for several years as both were fire watchers on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel during the war.  Or, at least that's what the siblings have been told, because once their mother's trunk has been discovered, hidden in the house after her departure, their bubble of security has been burst.

Within a couple of weeks, Nathaniel decides that living at home with a stranger is preferable to life at boarding school.  The trajectory of his life will be forever altered.  The Moth makes an unsettling decision to invite a former boxer known as The Pimlico Darter to join the household.  His particular talent is smuggling greyhounds into England using the night skies as cover while gliding along the Thames on river boats.  Nathaniel is pulled by the sense of adventure and becomes The Darter's steadfast companion, honing skills that will come in handy for better or worse. 

As the years progress, Nathaniel and Rachel form attachments to the various people who come and go from their home in Ruvigny Gardens.  Some are suspect from the beginning but others have layers that are revealed over time, the point being that the people living among us conceal things from the simple to the implausible.  Trading the pavement of London for the paths of Suffolk doesn't necessarily mean guaranteed immunity from the covert actions of people with connections, or unfinished business. 

Ondaatje weaves the story of some of Warlight's characters through time, backwards and forwards.  Were all of the connections made as characters' paths crossed plausible?  I did have a couple of moments of cynicism, but at the end of the day, this is a ripping good read.  Warlight is clever, entertaining, and at times the tension made me forget all about watching the clock when it was almost time to leave for work.  Going back through my notes I found it interesting there wasn't a single bold scrawl that says 'QUOTE' as I often do while reading, but there are seven pages of clues and suspicious behaviour.  Apparently I was as much 'on the case' as Nathaniel.  Warlight is the sort of book that would be fun to read over again with the gift of hindsight.

I was disappointed yesterday when the Man Booker Shortlist was announced and Warlight wasn't on it.  At the end of the day, there are many winners of various prizes for all kinds of books, but if they don't appeal to me then it's a moot point.  Warlight suited me down to the ground.

Cornish Children by Harold Harvey

12 comments:

  1. I was wondering about this and your words, and the fact that you consider it worthy of a Harold Harvey painting, has sent me over to the library catalogue. I'm 17th in the queue and there are 4 copies in the county ...

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    1. I can't go very long without browsing through Harvey's catalogue of work, Jane. Every painting feels like you've had a little holiday!
      Here's hoping the holds queue moves swiftly (because everyone plows through the book in a fever pitch) and you enjoy the story as much as I did.

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  2. I read this just after it came out and sped through it with pleasure. I love Ondaatje's writing and he weaves a captivating story.

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    1. Hi Claire! I'm not surprised you and this book were a good fit. Hope all is well with you....have a lovely day!

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  3. I’ve only had favourable reviews for this with my colleagues & customers at work as well. Hope to get to it soon.

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    1. This is such a good season for book releases. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction but my wishlist has been growing daily! Hope you enjoy Warlight once you finally get your hands on a copy.

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  4. Thanks for this detailed review. I too thought it was a ripping good read.

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    1. You're welcome, Shirley! I'll have to give The English Patient a go now, instead of thinking I know what it's about just by watching the movie.

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  5. I really enjoy your reviews, and this one was a cracker ! Thank you for this, and all your others, if course.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Maureen, and that's so nice of you to say. Well, I will do my best to keep you in reading material for the days and months ahead!

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  6. Ondaatjie is always a favourite of mine, especially being a fellow countryman of mine. Sadly though the book is available here in the Melbourne library, it is on reserve for ages, long after I've returned home.

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    1. Delayed gratification can be a wonderful thing, Mystica...but I do sympathize. If there's new book coming out in Britain, it can be several months before it shows up on shelves here in Canada. Thank goodness for ordering online!
      If you're already a fan of Ondaatje's books I'm quite sure you'll love Warlight.

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