Reviews for Warlight

by Michael Ondaatje

Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Acclaimed novelist Ondaatje (The Cat's Table, 2011, etc.) returns to familiar ground: a lyrical mystery that plays out in the shadow of World War II.In what is arguably his best-known novel, The English Patient (1992), Ondaatje unfolds at leisurely pace a story of intrigue and crossed destinies at the fringes of a global struggle. If anything, his latest moves even more slowly, but to deliberate effect. As it opens, with World War II grinding to a gaunt end, Nathaniel Williams, 14, and his 15-year-old sister, Rachel, learn that their parents are bound for newly liberated Singapore. Rose, their mother, has made the war years bearable with Mrs. Miniver-like resoluteness, but the father is a cipher. So he remains. Nathaniel and Rachel, Rose tells them, are to be left in London in the care of some—well, call them associates. They take over the Williams house, a band both piratical and elegant whose characters, from the classically inclined ringleader, The Moth, to a rough-edged greyhound racer, The Pimlico Darter, could easily figure in a sequel to Great Expectations. "It is like clarifying a fable," Ondaatje writes in the person of Nathaniel, "about our parents, about Rachel and myself, and The Moth, as well as the others who joined us later." But that clarification takes a few hundred pages of peering into murky waters: Nathaniel, in adulthood, learns that Rose, who slips back into England soon after sailing away, has been a person of many parts, secretive, in a war that has extended beyond the cease-fire, as partisans battle unrepentant fascists and the early Cold War begins to solidify, a time of betrayal and murder. If Rachel and Nathaniel's adventures among their surrogate parents, who "did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson," are far from innocent, the lives of all concerned have hidden depths and secrets, some shameful, some inviting murderous revenge.Ondaatje's shrewd character study plays out in a smart, sophisticated drama, one worth the long wait for fans of wartime intrigue.