Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Pub 2018
I haven’t been an Ondaatje fan, but a duo of events led me to read his latest: first, last week I found myself at a conference in Montreal, having finished the only book I brought with me and discovered that my Kindle battery was in need of a charge (and me without my charger); a wander through a nearby Chapters led to the discovery of this book (on sale). And second, a friend has invited me to attend an event with Ondaatje, so it seemed to make sense to at least own it if not read it.
I have read two previous Ondaatje novels – The English Patient (almost mandatory reading for any female Canadian over the age of 30), and In the Skin of the Lion (read second in the search for the greatness everyone spoke about in the first). I did enjoy the latter, although not enough to seek out more, but I found the former to be a slog.
Warlight is, for me, in the middle of these previous two. The story is interesting – two young children abandoned by parents who may or may not be spies to the care of some rather shady people in post-war London. Pathos ensues – and I was compelled to complete the book hoping for resolution of the many characters and plot lines. Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps because of) the plummy language and the shady atmospheres, in the end not enough is revealed to be satisfying. The fates of several characters are not resolved, including the sister, an allegedly central character who’s location and disposition at the end remain a mystery for reasons that are not at all clear. There are also missed opportunities to explore the post-war London world; the bombed out buildings and streets should have been omnipresent for the children in 1945 and yet are given just occasional passing reference, such that the moody landscape hinted at by the title is not realized.
I was hopeful that this novel would have been an exploration of the fallibility of memory, like Paul’s recollections in The Only Story earlier this year. But the main character is barely 30 years old, and while certainly has lived many lives worth of upheaval and grief, still has several decades to explore and alter his own story. He also confesses several times that he’s filling in the blanks of the story he can piece together (“I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth”, he says rather poetically about himself) so is another unreliable narrator, weaving a tale of his life that is mostly his own imagination, and so in some ways, like Paul, a storyteller not to be fully trusted. In the case of Warlight, it does leave the reader wondering: why do I care about this story if the narrator doesn’t even fully believe it? Why is he even telling it at all? That combined with the unresolved story of the sister and the lack of exploration of the landscape, left me feeling unsatisfied. Especially as the novel is relatively short – just 245 small pages – so had some room for additional narrative to fill in those gaps.
So ultimately, I remain a non-Ondaatje fan. The novels are unsatisfying – unresolved stories, unfinished characters and landscapes, unbelievable storytellers, language that is approaching poetic but not lyrical. I know as a Canadian I’m supposed to love Ondaatje (ditto Joseph Boyden), but I just can’t. It’s not them, it’s me.
Additional quibble: the book jacket design makes no sense. A photo of two people gambolling on a beach with a dog reflects nothing about the story, characters, setting, or even the atmosphere of the novel inside.
Trivia: this is the third book this year to include mention of a Belisha beacon. I’d never heard this term before, now three times in 6 months. The literary equivalent of “trending”. #Belishabeacon
20. A book with a one-word title.