The highly praised novelist, Michael Ondaatje, has written a transfixing mystery that begins with a family in bombed-out London near the end of World War II. As a British counterspy, the father goes on clandestine assignments for long periods of time. Even his family has no idea of his location and when or if he will return.
Suddenly, 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams and his 15-year-old sister Rachel are informed by their parents that they will be left with some acquaintances while mom and dad take off for Singapore. “In 1945, our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”
The teenagers’ chief minder is Walter whom the kids call The Moth because he is “moth-like in his shy moments.” The other man, Norman, is nicknamed the Pimlico Darter. Both men live on the margins of the law. Norman smuggles greyhounds into London for illegal racing; Nathaniel becomes his partner in crime.
Other eccentric and accomplished friends of The Moth and the Pimlico Darter lodge at the Williams’ house. “The house felt more like a zoo,” Nathaniel says, “with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief and a slow moving opera singer.” Nathaniel enjoys his time with these father figures, but Rachel mourns the loss of her parents. She will never forgive them for abandoning her.
The siblings stumble upon their mother’s steamer trunk which she ostentatiously packed in front of them. This discovery makes them wonder where she might be and what she might be doing.
The sojourns of Nathaniel in the back alleys of London, his love life with Agnes and his job at a banquet hall end in an act of horrible violence. The rest of the story focuses on the adult Nathaniel’s pursuit of the truth about his parents’ work which continued after the end of the war. After his mother’s death, Nathaniel becomes a part of Britain’s post war intelligence organization, where he uncovers her story.
“Warlight” has the draw and suspense of a sinister fairy tale. It is fast-paced and full of curious and delicate details. It is a dreamy, secretive mystery that is quietly solved. The title refers to the dim night light that shrouded London during the enemy bombings of World War II.
This novel is a spy thriller, a mother-son story and a love story eloquently told by a mesmerizing writer. I found it hard to put down not only because of the intriguing story line, but also because of the luscious and masterful writing.
Michael Ondaatje is the author of six previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film and several books of poetry. His earlier work, “The English Patient,” won the Booker Prize. Alfred A. Knopf is the publisher of this 289-page novel.