Wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully paced, subtle storytelling. Warlight contains an incredible array of characters through whom Ondaatje tells the hidden, barely spoken, tale of war, especially as it impacts on children. Ondaatje skilfully moves back and forth through time, finally offering an extraordinary narrative twist that feels as earned as it is unexpected
An extraordinary novel that makes you feel you’re entering a dream world. It kept reminding me of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Our narrator Nathaniel tells us about his teenage life in London. The war has just ended. Weirdly, his parents disappear. Nathaniel and his sister Rachel are looked after by very strange people...
A superbly told story.
For writers of fiction, from J.K. Rowling to Ian McEwan, the adventures of children whose parents are absent — removed from the family by death or duty — offer a rich vein of inspiration...
Ondaatje’s novel beautifully evokes the mysterious atmosphere of blacked-out wartime London, where shady characters roam the darkened streets and nothing, not even a mother’s departure, is what it seems.
Ondaatje brings Warlight’s seemingly disparate fragments together with such skill that the ending feels not just satisfying, but inevitable. The most lovely conjuring trick, it leaves you in awe of the magician. I emerged blinking into the glare of the 21st century, bereft in a way a novel hasn’t left me bereft for a long time. Will it win the Booker? If there’s a better book on the longlist, I’ll eat a copy of Hotel du Lac.
Ondaatje is a skilfully deliberate writer, and these secrets inevitably generate a certain degree of suspense. Over the years his style has purified a good deal, so elements that overdecorate the prose of The English Patient are largely absent here. But so regular is the pattern of uncertainty in this opening section of the novel, and so deep is the shading of motive and consequence, that it’s hard not to feel a degree of impatience.
If this is a novel in which little is clear, in which one is invited to follow trails which are then lost, in which one takes imaginary journeys along these forgotten rivers and canals, it is also one which is compulsively and grippingly readable. In fact I read it first at a gallop, enthralled by the image of a city and a world distorted and all but destroyed by war, and then again slowly, determined to savour the details and extract as much as I could from it. Much remained puzzling on this second reading, but two things are clear: Michael Ondaatje is a marvellous writer, and Warlight is a novel which will continue to play in the reader’s imagination.
Michael Ondaatje is at his best when writing about awkward, quiet types, and ‘those at a precarious tilt’, and characters — especially narrators, — with dodgy memories. (M.O.’s m.o. — if you will pardon it — does well out of the fragmentary narrative). As Nathaniel’s work unfolds, however, ‘now and then there would be days in the archives when I’d come across information from distant events that overlapped’ — not unlike, one might think, the work of a historically interested novelist. Towards the end, ‘Nathaniel’ states, with valid confidence: ‘I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand.’
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.
“We order our lives with barely held stories,” Nathaniel says at the end of the book. In Warlight, these “barely held stories” knit into a work of fiction as rich, as beautiful, as melancholy as life itself, written in the visionary language of memory.
Ondaatje’s novel flits from period to period, remembering with that war-lit haziness which blurs out general detail for the specific. (This kind of focused but fragmentary remembering is also, it should be noted, a symptom of trauma.) We rarely know what anybody looks like other than an outline, nor can we picture the buildings or objects, except those that pierce the membrane of Nathaniel’s memory: carpets in an empty house he snuck into with a girlfriend, or the sardines that he was given for dinner one eventful night.
Warlight is a subtly thrilling story. Not, despite its setting, because it seeks to grip like a spy novel, but because of the powerful atmosphere Ondaatje invokes of unease, disquiet and the unknown. It’s a masterful book, even if those looking for answers might, like Nathaniel, have to accept a more subtle resolution.
...as in all good fairytales, these crumbs were leading to the same conclusion. Reading it is rather like being presented with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but remaining unsure what the picture is until the final piece is slotted into place ...this is a novel in which nothing is fully illuminated... Although there are a few episodes of shocking violence, for the most part its movements are measured and catlike; this is writing that is prepared to take its time. For anyone who is equally willing to give it time, however, the result is a novel of shadowy brilliance.