- - Thursday, May 3, 2018



By Michael Ondaatje

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 304 pages

You have to be over 70 to remember World War II, and considerably older than that to remember actual fighting or daily life in the combatant countries. But the devastations and accommodations of the war remain, in fiction no less than in other areas of life. As Nathaniel, narrator of Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight,” notes “The past never remains in the past” — and novelists are among those who make sure it doesn’t.

Nathaniel begins his story by explaining that “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” True. But equally, it turns out that they were more. And what of Nathaniel’s mother Rose? Nathaniel will discover that she was also more than a parent, yet he knows she would admit that her “sins are various.”

Their parents’ departure discombobulates 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel, especially when they discover the trunk their mother had ostentatiously packed for her journey is still sitting in the basement long after her departure. School goes badly, and they end up living mostly at home, with The Moth, their mother’s tenant who is now one of their two dodgy guardians.

The other is his pal The Darter, a former boxer. After Nathaniel has stopped bothering to go to school, he helps The Darter smuggle greyhounds via the Thames. Later they spend nights carrying unmarked boxes by canal barge and truck from medieval Waltham Abbey to venues near the London docks. Rachel helps too.

Obviously both kids have questions. Where are their parents? Why have they left? Why have the inscrutable Moth and Darter been chosen as their guardians? Nathaniel discovers some answers when Rose returns and they live together in Suffolk, and even more when he later works in a government office that gives him access to wartime files.

Mr. Ondaatje’s previous novel, “The Cat’s Table,” similarly focused on the experience of a boy flying under the radar of parental authority, realizing that people may not be what they seem, and that important stuff happens in corners or behind closed doors or in nocturnal exploits. Both novels capture the combination of wildness and innocence of teenage boys, and both have treasuries of information.

In “Warlight” these are about the hidden canals and rivers debouching into the Thames, the subterranean service areas of grand hotels and the machinations of intelligence agents. Such chewy details charm the curious reader and testify to a writer’s expertise — always essential in novels that burrow into history.

That is exactly what the adult Nathaniel does in Part Two of “Warlight.”

“It took me a long time to rely on the past, and learn how to reconstruct it,” he says, explaining that “If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer, on an hourly basis. You do not concern yourself with what you must or should remember about them. You are on your own.”

Unraveling the mysteries of his teenage years and his mother’s life exposes some of what was hidden earlier: In those unmarked boxes for example, in government archives, in the hearts and minds of people such as The Moth and The Darter, and in the wreckage of post-war Europe as revengers and aggrandizers go about their business.

Nathaniel’s research and conjectures cast light on the war, but like the dim orange warlights that lit the way under canal bridges during the blackout, they leave most things in the dark — or at best in a haze tinted by their colored glow.

This, indeed, is how war is experienced. Nobody glimpses more than one or two tiny patches of huge canvas; the rest is mysterious and hidden. And that, perhaps, explains the appeal of World War II to the numerous novelists who have taken it on. The most interesting of them — Olivia Manning, Anthony Powell, for examples — have not focused on its battles but explored its motivations and its psychosocial impacts, especially on civilians.

Mr. Ondaatje joins their number. His portrayal of Nathaniel as “someone not intent on knowing himself but preoccupied by others” suggests an inquisitive and, eventually reflective interest that lies at the heart of the best war novels. It also suggests a post-war generation that may not have been equipped to know itself.

As ever, Michael Ondaatje writes beautifully. His sentences whiz to the target like arrows. His observations intrigue, as does the structure of his novel — a tale of adventure and mysteries that switches into a quest for answers. Some answers come. But as they do, this rich novel raises other questions that are just as fascinating.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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