Hannah Greendale's Reviews > Warlight

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
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it was ok
bookshelves: booker-prize-nominee

In Warlight, Ondaatje has crafted an ode to twentieth-century storytelling. A purposeless hero, a disdain for plot, and a lack of sensational revelations equate to a mind-numbing read in which nothing much happens.

In 1945 London, fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are abandoned by their parents, left in the care of a guardian selected by their mother. By following Nathaniel in his formative years, Ondaatje presumably intends to explore the aftereffects of war, to examine how a family is devastated by a pressing obligation to their country. However, Nathaniel is largely indifferent to his parents’ departure. He barely knew his father, and his mother’s absence is quickly overshadowed by the behavior of his strange-mannered guardian (nicknamed “The Moth”) and the peculiar social circle The Moth inhabits.

Warlight’s dust jacket proclaims this is a narrative “as mysterious and luminous as memory itself,” but there’s nothing mysterious about this book. Who Nathaniel’s parents were during the war, the seemingly questionable behavior of The Moth, and the criminal deeds of his acquaintances are either easily discernable or undisguised.

And, yes, the narrative is justifiably nonchronological, mimicking how memory does not follow a linear path, but these glimpses into Nathaniel’s past are lusterless because he doesn’t change by the end of the book. Nathaniel lacks an arc; he faces no moral quandary, no point of growth that forces readers to question where he started or how he arrived at a significant moment in adulthood. Even the people who surround Nathaniel remain largely unchanged. And since everyone mostly gets along, there’s an aching lack of conflict.

One of the redeeming qualities of Warlight are the tender moments shared between Nathaniel and Rachel, particularly when her epileptic fits strike. However, faint glimpses of their closeness prove inconsequential when, as adults, they opt to fend for themselves; a separateness Nathaniel reveals with nonchalance.

Had Ondaatje opted to follow Rachel, Warlight might have been salvaged. She’s the only character notably affected by her mother’s absence. “It is Rachel, who needed a close relationship with a mother during that time,” Nathaniel explains, “to protect her in the way a mother could.” It is Rachel who first thinks their guardian is a criminal and later becomes “surprisingly fond of talking to him.” Rachel whose life choices as an adult echo the instances that shattered her formative years.

Antiplot, stagnant characters, and a lack of mystery make Warlight a sleepy addition to the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist.
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Reading Progress

June 14, 2018 – Shelved
July 28, 2018 – Started Reading
July 28, 2018 – Shelved as: booker-prize-nominee
July 28, 2018 –
page 101
35.44% "*yawn*"
July 29, 2018 –
page 200
70.18% "Nothing . . . Nothing happens in this book. 😳"
July 29, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)

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Robert Sheard It disappointed me as well.


Anita Pomerantz I am only halfway through, but pretty bored.


Hannah Greendale @Anita Pomerantz: I'm sorry to tell you, but, that's unlikely to change. :(


Anita Pomerantz Ha ha yeah, I am almost done. And it got worse.


Lynn Pribus For me, it improved toward the end...


message 6: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Oh dear. It doesn’t look up my alley. Thanks for your thoughtful and honest review.


message 7: by Eddie (new) - added it

Eddie Clarke Oh dear! Was almost tempted by the hype, but maybe not 😊 have to say, thought the movie of The English Patient improved on the book!


Hannah Greendale @Leslie: Glad to be of service. :)


Hannah Greendale @Eddie Clarke: It's a rare instance when the film improves on the book. Now I'm feeling even more skittish about getting around to The English Patient.


Tammy I agree, Hannah. It was disappointing


message 11: by Allison (new) - added it

Allison Oh, dear. I’ve been dragging my feet on reading Warlight after seeing so many unenthusiastic reviews. What a shame. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


message 12: by Jan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jan Haha, Hannah, I LOL’d at your first paragraph. In the early sections, I kept wishing Ondaatje had told us the mother’s story, and then later, Rachel’s. It felt like an exercise in withholding, and didn’t deliver as much payoff as I wanted.


message 13: by Travis (new)

Travis Weir Thanks for the review, Hannah, I was wondering if I should pick up this new book of Ondaatje's. Thanks for the warning.


message 14: by Ian (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ian Carpenter Bang on, Hannah, I felt the exact same way. But don't feel skittish about The English Patient. It is an incredible book.


Constantine Oh boy, I have this on my TBR this month. Honestly, so far I have read three books from the Man Booker longlist and they were underwhelming. Not bad but underwhelming.


Hannah Greendale @Ian Carpenter: Thanks! I'm not giving up on The English Patient entirely. I've been visiting local bookshops lately and, in each one, I check for a used copy. I'll get around to The English Patient eventually; I'm just not willing to pay full price for more of Ondaatje's work at the moment.


Hannah Greendale @Constantine: I feel ya! I'm two books in and currently underwhelmed. Two more arrived yesterday. I hope to dive into one of them soonish. Fingers crossed it will be more surprising/memorable than the first two nominees I read.


message 18: by Angela (new)

Angela Coan I felt this way about Cat’s Table. The English Patient had so much that stuck to me, and is still there in my head after 10 years, but Cat’s Table was so underwhelming I haven’t had high hopes for another of his books since. If you plan to read The English Patient I’d love to hear your review. He’s capable of great work, but then for me it only makes his other “duds” more disappointing.


message 19: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Crytzer Fry Yep. Not adding this one to my list. Thanks for the thorough explanation of why it didn't work for you. Great review. Others have shared similar sentiments.


message 20: by Kristin (new) - added it

Kristin I am really thinking I might step away from reading much of the Man Booker longlist. It seems the panel that picks these books has much different ideas of a good book than I do. I don't have to have a book that reads at breakneck speed but I want a plot, not just good writing. Several books I have tried this year have such uneven pacing. Drives me crazy! Thx for this very thorough review!


message 21: by T. (new) - rated it 2 stars

T. I agree. Needed some big and meaningful revelations. Even a bit more effort drawing us into caring about Rachel and Nathaniel's lives.


Lonnie You summed it up superbly.


Chris Good review, which I generally agree with - found I didn't care enough about the characters.


Maureen Did we read the same book?


Jennifer I agree. I was disappointed at the character development of the mother later and just the over all flow of the second half of the book.


message 26: by Rae (new)

Rae Fuleki Agreed! Although it seems many people loved this book, I do not. A little too farfetched-the dad just disappears from his children's lives?!-and I never became invested enough in the characters to care about them and worry what happens. I'm about 2/3 of the way through it....is there any reason I should bother finishing it?


message 27: by Tom (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tom Bell I tend to agree, although I wouldn't rate it quite as low, if only because of the beauty in the writing. But I also felt the book would have been better had it gone another direction--for example, why not follow Olive, who struck me as a vastly more interesting character.


Colette Connors I totally disagree, Nathaniel changes, his loss of family life changed him to someone who would always remain at a distance ,from his sister ,from schoolmates,even from his Mother.


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