Warlight Hardcover – 7 Jun 2018
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"Our book of the year – and maybe of Ondaatje's career." (Daily Telegraph **Books of the Year**)
"Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is a rare and beautiful thing – a deeply retrospective novel about war secrets that feels neither overstated nor overly ethereal. In sumptuous prose, Ondaatje limns the psyche of a man still trying to make sense of his complicated relationships and the mysteries surrounding his absent parents. One of the most absorbing books I’ve read all year." (Esi Edugyan Times Literary Supplement **Books of the Year 2018**)
"Warlight sucked me in deeper than any novel I can remember… fiction as rich, as beautiful, as melancholy as life itself." (Alex Preston Observer)
"From the very first sentence you’re desperate to find out what happens next… All is slowly, tantalisingly revealed, in flashbacks, fragments, digressions and stories within stories, narrated in majestic Ondaatjean style." (Ian Sansom New Statesman)
"In Warlight we have a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing – and has constructed something of real emotional and psychological heft, delicate melancholy and yet, frequently, page-turning plottiness. I haven’t read a better novel this year." (Sam Leith Daily Telegraph)
"The latest novel from the author of The English Patient is just glorious... rendered with Dickensian verve. My hot tip for the Booker Prize." (Allison Pearson Harpers Bazaar)
"Ondaatje’s first novel in seven years mesmerizes from start to finish." (Hephzibah Anderson Mail on Sunday)
"I spend the months before the publication of a new Michael Ondaatje novel trying to keep my expectations in check, telling myself it's simply unfair to expect as much of any writer as I expect from Ondaatje. Then he pulls off a Warlight, and I'm embarrassed by my own lack of faith... [Warlight] is surprising, delightful, heartbreaking and written as only Ondaatje could write it." (Kamila Shamsie Observer)
"Compulsively and grippingly readable. In fact I read it first at a gallop, enthralled by the image of a city and a world distorted and all but destroyed by war, and then again slowly, determined to savour the details and extract as much as I could from it. Much remained puzzling on this second reading, but two things are clear: Michael Ondaatje is a marvellous writer, and Warlight is a novel which will continue to play in the reader’s imagination." (Allan Massie Scotsman)
"Ondaatje [is] such a thrilling writer… I loved [Warlight]." (Johanna Thomas-Corr Evening Standard)
About the Author
Michael Ondaatje is the author of several novels, as well as a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. Among his many Canadian and international recognitions, his novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize, and was adapted into a multi-award winning Oscar movie; and Anil’s Ghost won the Giller Prize, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto.
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In the 1940s narrative, Nathaniel, his sister Rachel and their parents have survived the war. Surviving the peace will not be so easy. First Nathaniel’s father leaves to work in Asia, and then his mother disappears. He and Rachel are brought up in the family home by a revolving cast of strange men who seem to drift around the edges of the criminal underworld. There are shady dealings with greyhounds and furtive nocturnal sailings up and down the Thames in a mussel barge. Nathaniel is at the transition from boy to man; he works in kitchens, sows wild oats and charms the various oddballs who hang around with his guardians. Until, one evening, this strange world collapses in on itself.
Moving to the 1959 section, Nathaniel is older and works for one of the government security agencies. This gives him an opportunity to investigate some of the mysterious events of the 1940s. In particular, we discover what happened to Nathaniel’s mother and her relationship with the curiously named Marsh Felon, the son of a thatcher who had worked on her roof many years previously.
For the first half, the reader is happy to go along with it all to see where it leads. Then, early in the second half, something goes awry. The point of view moves away from Nathaniel and somehow everything seems less immediate, less convincing. Nathaniel’s mother behaves inexplicably. Even when the explanation is attempted, it is inexplicable. As each character is explained in turn, the fundamental driving direction weakens more and more. It comes as no great surprise to the reader to discover that they everyone is a spook, but it is never clear how or why any of them became involved in espionage in the first place – or what they did while working as spies.
The evocation of an atmosphere is well done if somewhat clichéd. I mean, was the whole of the 1940s foggy? Were the streets really full of spivs that would embarrass Private Walker from Dad’s Army? Did spies really behave quite so – er – mysteriously?
The good outweighs the bad in Warlight. The first half and more is really compelling. The frustration is that the switch from intriguing to boring is quite sudden and quite irreversible. By the very end, with a greyhound nuzzling Nathaniel’s hand, there is an overwhelming sense that section after section has been added to get the wordcount up, but without any sense of whether it was actually adding to the story – which in a story-led novel is a problem.
Three and a half stars rounded down.
What struck me from reading the reviews is that each reader seems to have placed differing significance on the various themes. Some have mentioned that it is the memoirs of a man of his youth, some that found the plot compelling, some about a family broken by war.
My own personal take away from the novel was the important roles that ordinary people, even petty criminals, played during the war and the significance of the war effort on the home front by the general population.
I have docked off a star as I didn't actually find the plot all that engaging and whilst the characters are interesting, I found it difficult to feel invested in any of them. However, it is a well written and powerful novel and it'll be interesting to see if it is a key contender for the Man Booker this year.
I am not influenced by living in the area known as "The Saints" which features in the book, probably the only time this has happened in our literature
The characters are deeply engaging and the writing both has clarity and is deeply elegant.
There isn't a plot as such but there wasn't really a plot with The English Patient but it is intensely beautiful and held my attention throughout.
Unlike Kate Atkinson's Transcription, this novel delivers and involves.