“Such a grind” – Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

As with The Cat’s Table, Warlight employs what Adam Mars-Jones has called a “doubleness of texture and meaning, the yarn of adventure story backed with the deeper colours of adult experience”, the difference being where the former book was set largely upon an ocean liner en route to England via Suez and the Mediterranean, Warlight is set in London, for the most part in and around the fag end of the Second World War. Also each book flirts with autobiographical sleight of hand that the author would no doubt pass off as unhappy coincidence.

In Part 1, Ondaatje briskly sets up the situation: a young boy and girl, Nathaniel and Rachel, all but abandoned by a mother and father, apparently caught up in the need to take work overseas, left in the care of The Moth, an older, morally ambiguous friend of the family (Eddie Marsan will be ideal, should they make a film). Situation established, Ondaatje riffs, like ripples on a pond: “It was a time of war ghosts and grey, unlit buildings,” he writes. “And the chronology of events has fallen apart, for whatever defensive reason.” “I found myself within a confabulist pattern that drew together barge smugglers, veterinarians, forgers and dog tracks  in the Home Counties.” “…we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews had been in effect…” We see Nathaniel briefly at school, we see him in the company of The Moth and later The Moth’s friend, The Darter (Daniel Mays, if they make a film), we see Nathaniel befriend a woman – who takes up the name Agnes, Nathaniel having forgotten her real name – who becomes his lover (and we think to ourselves, I thought this kid was at school. but here he is behaving like an adult lover, hmmm, that doesn’t seem to entirely tally but ok – we’ll bear with it).

The house in which he and his sister lives,

“felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer.”

Nathaniel is also the resident of an “illegal world that felt more magical than dangerous”, he and his sister and later Agnes and The Darter on a barge illicitly travelling the waterways of London. We circle and we loop, The Darter fleshed out, his love of song, his love of women, his manner when he comes into contact with Agnes; then Agnes herself fleshed out, her parents and their nervousness, their small home, how The Darter comes to assume the position of Nathaniel’s father in absentia; Nathaniel’s sister hovering out of sight, Agnes filling her shoes; Nathaniel’s mother glimpsed, or not, at a dance. Almost the first half of Warlight feels like scene-setting, refracted through an older voice.

“Will all of them who have remained incomplete and lost to me become clear and evident when I look back?”

There is a low intermittent hum of possible menace that bursts the skin of this delicate balloon immediately prior to the beginning of Part Two and we wonder, ah, is this beginning now, is this going to pick up its pace and stop admiring the view? But, alas, no. The mode is set. It’s Part Two. The world has moved on a little. Nathaniel is older, working in intelligence himself, albeit at a low level. He no longer speaks to his sister. He no longer wonders about his father who all but disappears from the book. His mother, now sadly passed, comes more to the fore. We hear about the times the two of them spent, playing chess, worrying at each other. We hear about friends she made in the village where she spent the remainder of her days. At her funeral, Nathaniel meets a man (called Marsh Felon – that’s right, Marsh Felon – there is a character in this book called Marsh Felon – if there is a place on the globe that can be described as the furthest from the place where Thomas Pynchon elegantly names his wonderful characters, it is here, placed like a flag atop Marsh Felon’s head) she once knew when she was young, who fell off her roof and had to be nursed. We inhabit his personage as he draws flies (for fly fishing) for her.

“He’d wake in the dark and walk past houses they had already thatched, or go down into the river valleys as night began dissolving, already with birdsong. It was the hour with that tense new light that Marsh Felon now began searching for in books whenever the writer strayed from a plot to attempt a description of that special hour…”

Ah, we thought as we read. When an author strays from a plot. What a familiar feeling. There comes a point, around the three quarter mark of Warlight, when you have to accept Warlight for it is: a beautiful swan of a literary novel that circles and swims and loops in a way that some people will find mesmerising and others will find frustrating (is that all it does?!?). Some people might draw parallels with the nature of memory itself, saying Ondaatje is a master; other people might read the novel making a note of every time something along the lines of “the chronology of events has fallen apart”, “I found myself within a confabulist pattern”, “we were in a time capsule of the war years”, appears in order to say either, YES! WE GET IT! or THE LADY DOTH PROTEST TOO MUCH or some such. We were firmly in the latter camp. Warlight is a grind. Warlight is such a grind you want to take the word and stretch it out over a couple of hundred pages as if it was a word said by Liam Gallagher. We know that there are people who find this aimlessness beautiful. We are not in that camp. This is the very definition of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Which isn’t to say, mystifyingly, that Warlight is a terrible book by any means and there are certainly passages that are compelling and affecting (particularly in the second half of the book, curiously as our appetite for things diminished) – see the relationship between the aforementioned Felon and Nathaniel’s mother. But we were reminded, time and time again, of Anthony Doerr’s vastly superior All the Light We Cannot See and once more feel the need to say, if you just read one of the seeming never ending glut of WWII related books, read that one.

Any Cop?: Warlight left us cold. So, so cold. We can see that it is the kind of book a certain kind of intellectual would like but it did not work its magic on us.

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