Chrissie's Reviews > Warlight

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
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bookshelves: england, hf, ww2, audible-uk, 2-itunes-library, 2018-read, life-stages, balkans, italy, france, love, mystery

“We order our lives with barely held stories.”

Here lies the central message of the book. The words are said by Nathaniel, the story’s central protagonist and narrator.

The book opens in 1945. Nathaniel is fourteen and his sister, Rachel, almost sixteen. They live in London. Their father and mother seem to have abandoned them! The parents tell the siblings that while they are in Singapore, Rachel and Nathaniel will remain in England, each installed in their respective boarding schools. They detest their schools, flee back home, find strangers residing there and discover their mother’s packed trunk hidden in the cellar. No wonder the siblings feel abandoned. No wonder they have questions.

Possibly, someone is keeping an eye on them? Could that someone be the enigmatic figure named “The Moth”? He is soon joined by another, “Pimlico Darter”. Who are these men? Who are they really? Are they criminals? Rachel believes so. No one goes by their proper name. Even their own mother refers to Nathaniel as Stitch and Rachel as Wren. The first half of the book consists of a piling up of unanswered questions. The book reads as a mystery, filled with danger and suspense. London is reeling from the war. The teenagers’ existence feels equally precarious--two teenagers alone, left to fend on their own. The tale is to some extent a coming of age story.

Then the setting changes. We shift from London to Suffolk. Fourteen years have passed. Nathaniel is twenty-eight and working for the British Foreign Office. Under the guise of his employment, he searches archives for clues that will explain events of the intervening years. The book demands patience; only now do some of the questions begin to be answered. Events related to espionage and wartime activities in England, the Balkans, Italy and France are revealed. Ondaatje maintains suspense. Information is withheld and teased out slowly. Wars do not end with the mere signing of treaties; their aftermath shape people’s lives for years.

To understand properly, readers must have previous knowledge of political events in the Balkans after the war. Communism in the Balkans was beginning to take hold, but not without internecine conflicts. In my view, historical events should have been more clearly presented.

We, the readers and Nathaniel, search for answers--about Nathaniel’s mother, about his father and “The Moth” and “Darter” and about the other mysterious figures encountered. As in real life, we are not given answers to all that want to know. We fill in what we do not know with suppositions and guesses.

The telling is mysterious, atmospheric and downright confusing. I struggled to understand what was going on. “Should a book be this confusing?” flashed through my head numerous times. Yet, look again at the quote I began with. Life demands that we take what we know for sure and fill in the blank spaces with what we think may have happened. I agree, but this is also a book of historical fiction, and as such, historical events should be clearly presented. It is here the book falters.

I enjoyed the time spent with the book. I enjoyed the lines. I enjoyed the search for answers. I enjoyed the mysterious atmosphere conveyed. I do not need clear cut answers to all questions asked. The book is ambiguous because life is ambiguous. Through the characters we observe how different individuals cope and respond to life’s ambiguity. However, in relation to historical events I want clarity.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Steve West. He reads well. His pronunciation is clear, and the speed is not too fast, but the book is so complicated that I personally think it is better read than listened to.



Books I have read by Michael Ondaatje:
In the Skin of a Lion 4 stars
The English Patient 4 stars
Anil's Ghost 4 stars
Warlight 3 stars
Running in the Family 3 stars
Divisadero 3 stars
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Reading Progress

April 15, 2018 – Shelved
April 15, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
April 15, 2018 – Shelved as: england
April 15, 2018 – Shelved as: hf
April 16, 2018 – Shelved as: ww2
June 16, 2018 – Shelved as: wishlist-f
June 16, 2018 – Shelved as: audible-uk
June 20, 2018 – Shelved as: own-unlistened
June 20, 2018 – Shelved as: 2-itunes-library
June 20, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018-read
July 6, 2018 – Started Reading
July 7, 2018 – Shelved as: life-stages
July 8, 2018 – Shelved as: balkans
July 8, 2018 – Shelved as: italy
July 8, 2018 – Shelved as: france
July 8, 2018 – Shelved as: love
July 8, 2018 – Shelved as: mystery
July 8, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Ellie I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did, Chrissie. I love Michael Ondaatje and this is my favorite of his work. So beautifully written and moving.


Chrissie It certainly makes one curious.


message 3: by Diane S ☔ (new) - added it

Diane S ☔ Glad you ended up liking this, Chrissie. The parts with the greyhounds went on too long for me and that's when I stopped reading it.


Chrissie I understand , Diane.

The book demands patience, but it does deliver good points.


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