“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”
This is Nathaniel William’s opening statement in Warlight, a novel about his coming-of-age in post-World War II London. As the novel’s narrator, he tries to reconstruct and make sense of his adolescence after his parents disappear, leaving him and his older sister in the care of two somewhat mysterious men that they nickname “The Moth” and “The Darter.”
At 28, he looks back on his 14-year-old self and follows his dimly-lit path to adulthood. He reminisces and reconstructs evocative but incomplete fragments and characterizations of the people and places that shaped him. The Moth gets him work on weekends at a local hotel; when he falls in with the Darter, he helps smuggle greyhounds on barges in the dark of night. Through work, Nathaniel also meets Agnes, with whom he recalls many close encounters in empty houses.
Nathaniel’s memories of adolescence end abruptly with a scene about which he remembers little except that the Moth is killed and his mother reappears. From that point, we spend more time in Nathaniel’s adult world, as he researches and tries to reconstruct his mother’s life as secret agent named Viola, and the events leading up to her death.
Ondaatje is a beautiful writer; he casts the whole story in a kind of murky, melancholy half-light. It is a great book about trying to reclaim one’s life by making sense of the past. As Nathaniel says at the end of the book: “We order our lives with barely held stories.”
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Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian