Ondaatje, Michael. Warlight. Knppf, New York, 2018. F;5/18.
This Canadian writer has been one of my favourites. I highlighted his Cat’s Table among the dozen or so of my likes since starting recording book reviews because he writes with the kind of old-fashioned charm I also associate with Nabokov and Franz Kafka, which I called in reviewing Cat’s Table a “reserved edge of artistic formality.” But this new story doesn’t have the fully satisfying roundness that Ondaatje has commanded in the past. It reminded me a bit of my reaction to John Banville’s The Infinities : a master of the imagination just enough off his focus that things don’t hang together. Who knows what that’s all about? I suspect experienced writers must see it coming at some point and be unable to avoid the problem, whatever it is.
Anyway, we have a couple of young teenagers in immediate postwar London suddenly abandoned by their parents, who announce they are leaving for the Orient because of work. The kids will be in private boarding school and looked after by a lodger living upstairs. The sister eventually disappears, and the boy narrator Nathaniel is followed through a variety of relationships, while he tries to find out what really happened to his parents from a retrospect of 15 years or so. The parents, it turns out, aren’t doing anything like the expected kind of work.
Ondaatje lost his mother and father at a young age so it’s tempting to imagine something autobiographical in Nathaniel’s seeking and in part finding replacements for his parents. A variety of candidates drift in and out, mostly to see to his and his sister’s safety. The mother especially is central and she reappears, a bit like the mum in Cat’s Table with whom the boy narrator is reunited.
Two men could replace the father. The “Pimlico Darter” is a boxer and lothario who operates several vaguely illegal or dangerous projects. Nathaniel helps him ferry contraband false-pedigree racing dogs and mysterious cartons on the Thames river at night. Mr. Malakite takes Nathaniel under his wing and shows him wonderful strength of character. One of the descriptions I found most affecting (because it follows characterization that makes him one of the few fully credible characters) involved this self-assured nonconformist:
That his wife had made this lunch for us that morning several miles away felt parental. He wore bottle-thick spectacles. His ox-like stature made him distinct. He had a long lowland “badger coat”, made out of several skins, which smelled of bracken, sometimes of earthworms.
Nathaniel at age 15 meets Agnes, two years older, and they have more closely-described sex than I think I’ve seen in anything else by Ondaatje. But the description is awkward: The first time they, and Nathaniel, have sex “We fuck where the dining room would have been.” I wanted something a bit more honest, maybe a little detailed awkwardness between the two of them instead of in the description.
Many of the other characters, “Moth”, the upstairs lodger who is primarily responsible for the kids for example, seem two-dimensional. There is artful thriller-plot-style weaving in and out of the characters which fits with the post-wartime espionage environment of the story, and a lot of darkness of tone and scenes that work that way too. But in the end there wasn’t quite enough magnetic current of humanity and convincing emotion to support the plot intricacy.
I liked the late 1940s English atmosphere. I’d just read some nonfiction about England in World War II and found consistency between the two accounts. Many times a simple statement without conventional logic seemed perfect: “The sinister benevolence of the lift (elevator)” needed no explanation. At other times though in the book’s second half I had a fatal sinking sensation of wanting to get on with the story because of that lack of character and emotion.
Nobody’s perfect. Even Nabokov, Lawrence, and Shakespeare had off days. Some of my favourite writers only pull it together once or twice: Cunningham, Chabon, Boyle. I guess we’ll find out, or maybe not, what happens to wonderful Michael Ondaatje next time out.