Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Warlight

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
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it was amazing
bookshelves: bildungsroman, illustrated-review, ww2

A Lost Inheritance
We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river. I watched the welterweight boxer whom I had once perceived as harsh and antagonistic turn and look towards me, talking gently as he searched for the precise words about the ankles of Olive Lawrence, and about her knowledge of cyan charts and wind systems.


The photo is no more than a convenient summary of the noir world that Michael Ondaatje conjures up in the first hundred pages or so of this masterpiece of emotional archaeology. Like another WG Sebald, only working with words, he shows snapshots of distant reaches of a damaged London, exhausted by the Second World War. And as with Sebald, Ondaatje's word images are half-open doorways giving onto a mysterious, half-remembered past. He is a grown man looking back at his early teens, groping in the dark to grasp the shape of a life that was itself a mystery, a limbo life that begins with his opening sentence:
In 1945, our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.
One of these men is a lodger in their London house whom they call "The Moth." He is benevolent but distant, disappearing for days at a time to leave the 14-year-old narrator (Nathaniel, more generally known as "Stitch") and his older sister Rachel to their own devices. The other is a former boxer known as The Pimlico Darter, who soon involves Stitch in activities of doubtful legality such as the smuggling of greyhounds upriver to race at the London tracks. Various other people come and go in the house, such as the "geographer and ethnographer" Olive Lawrence and the scholarly Arthur McCash, but it is The Darter who makes the biggest impression:
The music-loving Moth appeared blind to the evident anarchy in The Darter. Everything the ex-boxer did was at a precarious tilt, about to come loose. Worst were the crowded car rides when the two of them sat in front, while Rachel and I and sometimes three greyhounds squabbled in the back on the way to Whitechapel. We were not even certain that the dogs belonged to him.
I am also reminded of Patrick Modiano, for his fascination with the hidden details of a great city, his excavation of memory, and his sense of a semi-criminal half-life with its roots in the War. But there are even closer echoes of Ondaatje himself. His masterpiece The English Patient is also concerned with the immediate aftermath of war, and the way in which it can make criminals into heroes. But my most immediate connection was with his 2011 novel The Cat's Table. That was the story of a voyage from Ceylon to London of a schoolboy named Michael who might to all intents and purposes have been the author; though fiction, it used (in the author's words) "the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography." In Warlight, the action has been moved back by a decade or so, but in other respects it might almost be a sequel, with the same character a year or so older, compiling a scrapbook of extraordinary experiences that would be the raw materials for his later career as an author. This sense of memoir was confirmed when I suddenly realized that Nathaniel's school is the same one that Ondaatje himself attended in London—Dulwich College:



This color painting of Dulwich by Camille Pissarro also serves to mark the break between the noir feeling of Part One of the novel and the rural setting of Part Two. For a little before the halfway point something dramatic happens which brings the adolescent adventures to an end. The story resumes again, fifteen years on, in a beautiful group of villages in North Suffolk (photo below) known as "The Saints," where his mother grew up. This is more than the brief jumps into adulthood towards the end of The Cat's Table, more like the double-time frame he uses in Divisadero. Though "double" may be a misnomer. For although the narrator moves well forward in his own life, he makes it a vantage point from which to look even further back into his mother's story, to the interwar years and her activities during the War itself. Now the narrator is trying to make sense not so much his own life as that of his mother, from childhood on. Yet understanding his mother and understanding himself may be parts of the same process:
When you attempt a memoir, I am told, you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you, and the things you have grown cautious and hesitant about, will come almost casually to you. "A memoir is the lost inheritance," you realize, so during this time you must learn how and where to look. In the resulting self-portrait everything will rhyme, because everything has been reflected. If a gesture was flung away in the past, you now see it in the possession of another. So I believe something in my mother must rhyme in me. She in her small hall of mirrors and I in mine.
He goes about his task elliptically; only gradually do you realize the web of connections that tie him to the village where his mother had grown up. But there are gaps in that web, and Stitch, true to his nickname, slowly attempts to stitch them up. And he does so, no longer as a memoirist or biographer, but a full-blown novelist, inventing an inner truth from the few fragments of fact that he can unearth.

The book will eventually come round full circle, as most of the mysterious characters in Part One are brought into the real world. Yet the gift of Part Two is to introduce a new character with the marvelous name of Marsh Felon. The son of a family of roofing thatchers, he grows up with even more unexpected talents than The Darter, from being the genial host of a weekly nature show on BBC to a lethally effective operative in the War and its aftermath. It is a brilliant feat of alchemy on Ondaatje's part that the figure who returns the novel to the light of day should also be its loveliest source of romance.
Facts, dates, my official and unofficial research fell away and were replaced by the gradual story, half dreamed, of my mother and Marsh Felon. How they eventually walked towards each other without their families, their brief moment as lovers and then their retreat, but still holding on to their unusual faithfulness to each other. I had barely a clue as to their cautious desire, of travels to and from dark airfields and harbours. All I had, in reality, was no more than a half-finished verse of an old ballad rather than evidence. But I was a son, parentless, with what was not known to a parentless son, and I could only step into fragments of the story. […] I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.
Indeed he does!


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Reading Progress

May 11, 2018 – Started Reading
May 11, 2018 – Shelved
May 13, 2018 –
75.0% "The book is still revealing itself. Just as you think you have got it, and are perhaps a tad disappointed that you have done so, it morphs into something else. Then again. And again. Meanwhile, Ondaatje’s sense of detail (and his feeling for memory, mystery, and wonder) remains a marvel."
May 13, 2018 – Finished Reading
May 14, 2018 – Shelved as: bildungsroman
May 14, 2018 – Shelved as: illustrated-review
May 14, 2018 – Shelved as: ww2

Comments Showing 1-36 of 36 (36 new)

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Lisa Lieberman A new novel from Michael Ondaatje!

Mary Lins What a fantastic review, Roger! And the photos you added were a real treat! Thank you!

message 3: by Roger (last edited May 15, 2018 03:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roger Brunyate Thanks, Mary. This one took about three times as long as normal, but I think the book is worth it. R.

message 4: by Lars (new) - added it

Lars Jerlach Great review Roger. I put this one on the list.

message 5: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala I enjoyed every word of this, Roger, his AND yours - you lead us through Ondaatje's story very beautifully.
The Cat's Table popped into my head even before you mentioned it, and I can see also why you were reminded of Divisadero. I admired both those books very much - and now I'm eager to read this one too. Thank you for steering me towards it.

PS - the images are well chosen as usual. That Pissarro is one I didn't know - such harmony.

Roger Brunyate Thanks, Fionnuala. I just looked up your review of The Cat’s Table. It is brief, but the real treasures are in the comments. I had not thought of Proust in connection with Ondaatje, but of course. Duh!

With that borrowed epiphany, I want to quote the passage from Divisadero that you noted as being especially Proustian. It belongs here too.

“For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.”
― Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero

Mary Lins Wow. Thanks for that, Roger. What a lovely quote to start the day.

Barbara Marvelous review! I'm not sure when I'll be ready to tackle Ondaatje but he is on my list.

Roger Brunyate His two most recent books at least, Barbara, are not difficult. R.

Katie I plan to read this so am not reading reviews until I'm done but delighted to see those five stars, Roger.

Roger Brunyate I was thinking of you just last week, Katie, while carting five boxes of books to The Book Thing. R.

message 12: by Fergus (new) - added it

Fergus Beautiful. I agree with you, Roger, and share the feelings of so many friends who consider him a very fine author indeed.

Though in my earlier years I loved noir - in contemporary films, serious music and books - I now avoid its notoriously "funnel" effect on fans' minds, driving us down to the murkier and hence more dangerous regions of our own souls.

For me, living the noir feeling is one thing. Living with depression is an altogether different matter.

First thought, best thought. So lately I steer altogether clear of it! Unless there is some redemption for the protaganist...

But many thanks for yet another Wonderful book review! And you express your feelings so very well.

Roger Brunyate What have you read by him, Fergus? I find he has become a much more approachable writer with time.

A very interesting set of thoughts about noir. It does require the reader to enter willingly into it; if there is latent depression there, it should be avoided. As I tried to suggest by my sequence of photographs, though, this book does not by any means drown itself in darkness. The noir feel of the earlier sections is actually adventure for the 14-year-old boy. And it ends in a country cottage with a walled garden.

Have we discussed Modiano? I won’t say more now, but I find him fascinating, a little disturbing, and utterly addictive. R.

message 14: by cameron (new) - added it

cameron Divisadero lost me along the way but I admire everything about this poet/writer. Your first paragraph convinced me to read this.

Roger Brunyate Thanks, Cameron. I hope I shall not have led you astray! R.

message 16: by Jaidee (new) - added it

Jaidee astound me with your writing. Ondaatje would be so honored to read this gorgeous review.

I still have elements of Divisadero swirling in my psyche !

I so enjoy your reviews !!

Roger Brunyate Thanks, Jaidee. I so appreciate books that make me have to think while writing a review, but Michael Ondaatje is in another firmament entirely! R.

Elyse Walters Exceptional review!!! Really remarkable. I loved what you wrote about Stitch - and how his nickname fit so perfectly. --
What did you think about when Nathaniel (Stitch) nicknamed him girlfriend? --Did you think it was just playful? -- or have more meaning?
I think it was the shadow of his mother tied (stitched) to the war that I thought so much about -- and I'm still thinking.
Oh--and those lovely photos you have shared are gorgeous!
Thank you for all the time -effort -and heart you put into this review!!

message 19: by Roger (last edited Jun 02, 2018 06:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roger Brunyate Not on topic, but it is a way to reach you. I bought a number of books during my brief stay in Paris, and read and reviewed two of them (see links). One a classic, Racine's Bérénice, because I was going to see the production by the Odéon company, but the best part of the experience was reading the text. The other was something I picked up at random from the best-seller section at Gibert Jeune, Mon frère by Daniel Perrac. I can't understand the point of it at all, though you might have a smidgen at least of interest. R.

message 20: by Susu (new) - rated it 5 stars

Susu A worthy review! I finished this yesterday. It is a favorite I don’t think I will forget.

Roger Brunyate Thanks, Susu. I clicked your rating, but no review… yet? R.

Gumble's Yard Great review as always Roger - loved the black and white photo

Seemita Gorgeous review, Roger. Loved the way you touched upon all the undercurrents that make this work so arresting. Like Sebald? Yes, at many bends.

Soconn5 Exceptional review. I simply enjoy his writing, and appreciate hearing a well read critic’s more technical praise. Thanks!

Roger Brunyate Technical? Thanks for thinking so. I am just older than most and so I suppose have had time to read more. R.

message 26: by Lisa (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa Lieberman Roger,

I just finished reading and reviewing Warlight and have now read your review all the way through. (You and Jeffrey Keeten signaled the appearance of this novel, but when I come upon a review of a book by one of my favorite authors, I wait until I've had a chance to form my own impression of the work.)

As I know that you are intrigued by Modiano, I'm not surprised that you saw the resonances with his novels here, and I agree that the book is also reminiscent of Sebald, in subject matter if not in tone. The playful curiosity of Cat's Table is more in evidence here, although Nathaniel does sound world-weary in places. (I was reminded of the ruminative voice of John le Carré in his later and most personal works.)

I've been asking myself whether all this apparently conscious borrowing from other authors accounts for my vague dissatisfaction with Warlight. The various sections were of uneven quality, and I wished he'd left out the last one, or written it differently.

Your thoughts?

Roger Brunyate As you may have seen, Lisa, I have read your review now and left you a comment there. I will copy this too to your page,

You wrote (to me): I've been asking myself whether all this apparently conscious borrowing from other authors accounts for my vague dissatisfaction with Warlight. The various sections were of uneven quality, and I wished he'd left out the last one, or written it differently.

You and I both have fun noting similarities between writers. I don't know about you, but I do it partly for my own sake, to get my bearings, and partly for our readers, on an "if you liked X, you might like Y" basis. But that is not to say that these are conscious borrowings on the part of the author. Much of what we note as the Modiano quality, for instance, is to be found in earlier novels also; the new thing here is tying it to a very precise city geography. But I see this element more as Modiano giving him permission, or showing the effectiveness of the technique, rather than a specific attempt to write in his style.

By the last section, do you mean the final three pages? I very much like your comparison to Julian Barnes here, though I would think it more a matter of both authors being at a similar point in life's journey. Anyway, I have just reread them, and find them wonderfully settling and absolutely right. R.

Violet wells Another masterpiece of a review, Roger. Miles better than the one in The Guardian!

Roger Brunyate With a compliment like that, Violet, I'll have to look The Guardian one up! And look for yours. R.

Roger Brunyate I just now read the Guardian review, Violet, and found it excellent, so can't quite bask in your compliment. It makes me realize that I must read Ondaatje's memoir, Running in the Family, which the writer considers the best of all his books. I also envy the passage below:

"Warlight’s brilliance comes from telling a familiar story – the female spy has become an established literary trope, from William Boyd to Simon Mawer – in a way that gives us all the pleasures of the genre without ever feeling hackneyed or predictable. It’s as if WG Sebald wrote a Bond novel."

WG Sebald as Ian Fleming—how delicious! R.

switterbug (Betsey) This is really an exquisite review, Roger, which the book deserves. I am humbled by your astute insights and the beautiful pics that add even more dimension.

message 32: by Wen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wen Fantastic review Roger! I love it too. My second Ondaatje after The English Patient. Thanks for bringing up The Cat's Table. Will add.

message 33: by Roger (last edited Aug 18, 2018 03:09AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roger Brunyate Enjoy The Cat's Table, Wen! R.

message 34: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Ansbacher Wonderful, Roger, you certainly do it justice. One of the things I love is the way you are able to describe so much and so accurately without giving anything away!

Roger Brunyate That is very kind of you, Will. I don't always succeed in not giving anything away, but I do think carefully about what is necessary to reveal if I am to say anything meaningful at all. R.

Susan Kavanagh What a wonderful review for such a wonderful book! Completely agreed with your review and loved the art work.

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