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Warlight [DAPL large print book club kit]
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New York Times Review
"THE past ... never remains in the past." That is the signature theme of Michael Ondaatje's new novel, which juggles time in much the same way that memory does, interlacing the war years of the 1940s with their immediate aftermath and then jumping forward a decade or so, only to dart back to the war again. At the outset, Ondaatje's narrator, Nathaniel, is 14; by the last page he is in his late 20s. In between is the intricate, subtly rendered account of what happened to his mother, Rose. The warlight of the title is the London blackout of World War II, when familiar landscapes were darkened, mysterious, uncertain. It epitomizes nicely the climate of a narrative that is itself devious and opaque, that proceeds by way of hints and revelations. The hints are paramount. This is a book that requires close reading. A sentence, a reference, will signal something yet to come. Blink, and you've missed it. You are forever dipping back - ah, now I see - such is the intricate and clever construction of a narrative about wartime deeds and postwar retributions that is also, at its heart, the story of a childhood. As teenagers, Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, find themselves abandoned by their parents during the final months of the war, for reasons unstated, and left in the care of a burly, eccentric man they call the Moth, who is host to a motley, ever changing crew of visitors to their own old London home. A central figure is the Darter, a man engaged in evidently nefarious activities, usually by night, whom Nathaniel adopts as a father figure. The Darter is involved in the illicit import of greyhounds at a time when greyhound racing was apparently unregulated; more crucially, he later takes Nathaniel and his girlfriend, Agnes, on secretive nighttime missions, making contraband deliveries by boat up the Thames. This is a book rich with detail. The reader is bound to be conscious of a hidden ballast of research, the seven-eighths of the iceberg without which the thing would founder, but so deft is the writing that you forget this, simply appreciating the meticulous background that brings alive a time and a place. From the technicalities of fixing a greyhound race - how to make a dog slow down or even stop - to the rituals of dishwashing and cleaning at the banquet hall where Nathaniel works as a boy, to the procedures of Suffolk thatchers and the secretive transport of nitroglycerin during the war, there seems to be some kind of authenticating material every few pages. But it's often the telling image that's the most striking, the incidental note that summons up the living past: "when there was just warlight, the river dark save for one dimmed orange light on bridges to mark the working arch for water traffic." There's a lot of river in "Warlight." The Darter is an ex-boxer but he's also an expert in navigation, descended from generations of lightermen, those who know every creek and tideway of the London stretches of the Thames. He uses his barge to move those illegal greyhounds and later to deliver unspecified cargo, with Nathaniel and Agnes as willing helpers, happy not to ask many questions. The Darter is a mysterious figure. At the end of the book, he will acquire a real identity and become a little clearer, but not much. And this is indeed the signature theme of "Warlight," that people are elusive and evasive: from those figures of Nathaniel's and Rachel's teenage years to Marsh Felon, the man with whom Rose has been in an ambiguous relationship all her life, and, of course, to Rose herself. We first meet Felon when, as the youngest member of a family of thatchers, he falls off the roof of Rose's parents' house in Suffolk when she is just 8, a story she tells her children that doesn't seem significant until, very far along, we meet him again with a shock of recognition. This is one of several instances when the novel mirrors Nathaniel's observation that "you return to that earlier time armed with the present." Some previous incident or reference is clarified much later; you understand why that was important, why that person or that event mattered. "Warlight" is a novel that presents a challenge to the reviewer, since it would be a disservice to reveal too much of what happens. Central to the narrative is Rose, from the moment she apparently abandons her children until Nathaniel finds himself spending his school holidays with her in Suffolk after the war. It is not giving too much away to say that she has been involved in intelligence work. That was signaled early on, though the nature of this work is not revealed until much later, when an older Nathaniel starts to make his own investigation. At this point the narrative steps away from Nathaniel's point of view to a detached account of Rose's life - but one, it seems, of which Nathaniel is aware. The technique is a little disconcerting. You have to assume that this is his reconstruction of what happened back then, for in the course of this return to the past there is once more a time switch, to Italy in the last months and the immediate aftermath of the war. That febrile period is essential to "Warlight." It was a time when circumstances diverted so many lives, when people found themselves behaving differently, unexpectedly, when the license of wartime spilled over into the postwar period, when pragmatism became crime and opportunity beckoned. And all over Europe there were scores to be settled. For many, the war had not ended. For Rose, in particular. The last part of the novel establishes as a personality the absent figure of the earlier part. And it is clear that Rose is herself one of those shaped and directed by historic circumstance, propelled by the war into another life, becoming someone driven, dedicated, remarkable. Nathaniel finds it hard to form a postwar relationship with her, affected still by her abandonment of him and his sister. Rachel, a shadowy figure throughout the book, as is the children's father, has declined to see her mother anymore. It has to be said that Nathaniel himself doesn't come across strongly as a character, which can happen with the narrator in a work of fiction. We know his reactions, his responses, but he is nowhere very positive, instead stepping back to allow more vibrant characters to take center stage. When he is a young man, Nathaniel is invited to apply to the Foreign Office, where he is given a job reviewing files that cover the war and the years that followed, part of a scheme known as the Silent Correction, a process of assessing successful ventures against those that had failed, "so revisionist histories could begin." This work becomes, for him, an enlightenment. But it serves as a nice illustration of the way the viewpoint of the present reconstructs the past, which is the paramount subject matter of this intricate and absorbing novel. ? It was a time when circumstances diverted lives, when pragmatism became crime. penelope LIVELY'S most recent book, a memoir called "Life in the Garden," has just been published.
Library Journal Review
In 2017, Ondaatje (The English Patient, The Cat's Table) donated his personal archive, complete with his notebooks and correspondence with Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, to the University of Texas, allowing the public a glimpse into his detailed and intricate approach to narrative, language, and anatomy of his novels. Here, Ondaatje weaves writings and newspaper articles into a narrative about the complexity of family history within the long shadow of World War II. Reflecting on the gaps in his own family history and his mother's mysterious disappearance when he was a teen, Nathaniel searches for a way to better understand his mother's idiosyncrasies. Through archival recordings and interviews with the eccentric characters from his childhood, a mosaic slowly emerges that illuminates not only his mother's story but the forgotten lives buried under the history of war. VERDICT Ondaatje's prose encapsulates readers in the dreariness of London and the claustrophobic confines of Nathaniel's experience, explicating the verbosity of silence that lingers in the haunting aftermath of global war. [See Prepub Alert, 11/6/17.]-Joshua Finnell, Colgate Univ., Hamilton, NY © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
The term warlight was used to describe the dimmed lights that guided emergency traffic during London's wartime blackouts. The word aptly describes the atmosphere of this haunting, brilliant novel from Ondaatje (The Cat's Table), set in Britain in the decades after WWII, in which manysignificant facts are purposely shrouded in the semidarkness of history. The narrator, Nathaniel Williams, looks back at the year 1945, when he was 14 and "our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals." Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are stunned to discover that their mother's purported reason for leaving them was false. Her betrayal destroys their innocence; they learn to accept that "nothing was safe anymore." To the siblings' surprise, however, their designated guardian, their upstairs lodger, whom they call the Moth, turns out to be a kind and protective mentor. His friend, a former boxer nicknamed the Pimlico Darter, is also a kindly guide, albeit one engaged in illegal enterprises in which he enlists Nathaniel's help. The story reads like a nontraditional and fascinating coming-of-age saga until a violent event occurs midway through; the resulting shocking revelations open the novel's second half to more surprises. The central irony is Nathaniel's eventual realization that his mother's heroic acts of patriotism during and after the war left lasting repercussions that fractured their family. Mesmerizing from the first sentence, rife with poignant insights and satisfying subplots, this novel about secrets and loss may be Ondaatje's best work yet. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (May)
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