I posted the review for Warlight last week on my feed for The Slow Reader (https://slow-reader.pinecast.co). Here’s the text! Please excuse any minor typos – I didn’t really write it to be read, but to be heard.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Welcome to the Slow Reader – a podcast about books. I’m Steve and in today’s episode I am reviewing Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.
About the book
Publish date: May 8, 2018
Back of the book summary:
In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel.
Warlight is a book that, because it’s by a renown Canadian author, is going to be found prominently displayed at most large bookstores in Canada, so that’s how it first appeared on my radar. I’ve never read Ondaatje before (even though I was supposed to read In the Skin of a Lion in university), so it didn’t immediately go on my to-read list. It wasn’t until I read the back-of-the-book description that made me want to read it. I also knew that it was critically acclaimed and on several book prize lists. So that’s what really sealed the deal and prompted me to add it to my library hold list.
The book has different chapter headings, but they’re not numbered. I might not have had a good idea of how the chapters were divided, reading an eBook copy. Unfortunately, in preparing this review, I didn’t have a physical copy to rely on and can’t really elaborate further. But the way it worked in the eBook was that the novel was split into 3 overall parts, and within those parts were chapters (with headings such as “Wildfowling”), and within those were other, smaller breaks.
I found it really easy to read full chapters at a time, as they were all small chunks. It made for some easily digestible reading sessions – and as I’ll elaborate on in a little bit, this was really helpful in trying to decipher the book.
My Reading Timeline
I started reading the book on November 13th, and finished reading it on November 28th. That’s 16 days, which is quick for my standards – but the reason for that was because it was a library eBook that I had no opportunity to renew.
My copy had 272 or 292 pages (depending on my font settings), so it was a short book to move through as well. Because I read it in my Kobo Clara HD, I was able to get some good stats: it took my 8.6 hours to read, with my average minutes read per session at 6 minutes, and an average of 0.9 pages per minute.
Questions to Answer
I didn’t come up with any questions before I started reading Warlight, mostly because I had to just dive right into the book. The summary I read earlier is actually a fairly good indication as to what the book is about. But to really understand it, I need to delve into spoiler territory. From this point out, while I won’t get into every detail, I recommend reading the book before continuing with the podcast.
What’s the book really about?
This is a complicated question, and a complicated answer. On the surface, I don’t think the book is “about” anything in the sense of conflict. It really feels like it’s three different stories mashed together. It starts out as what appears to be a coming of age story, but at the end of part one, it becomes a spy story when there’s an attempted kidnapping of Nathaniel and his sister. But given the details weaved throughout the first part, you can see that it also has always been a spy story. In Part Two, it becomes a fact-finding mission – Nathanial as an adult trying to uncover secrets about his mother. And the third part is his mother’s story – but in the end, all three parts are woven together and tied up neatly.
I’m not going to lie, I had to do a little bit of extra reading to try to pick apart this book. There’s a section in the Warlight Wikipedia entry devoted to “interpretation”. I’m grateful for it, because it helped distill some of the more confusing aspects of the story (and also helped inform my own interpretation of the book). There’s a New York Times review by Penelope Lively where she suggests the theme of the novel is that “the past never remains in the past”, and “the present reconstructs the past”. I think this interpretation is bang on – and fits with some of the observations of the main character at the end of the story.
When I think about it personally, I can’t help but come to the same conclusion about the present “reconstructing” the past. It’s really easy to look back at past events and remember them in a different light. “Hindsight is 20/20” is a saying for a reason, after all.
Another part of the novel that I picked up on, and confirmed in Lively’s interpretation, that the narration is deliberately vague and not revealing. The term “warlight” is mentioned several times throughout the story, referring to periods in the war where England would create blackouts to make it difficult for German bombers to see the landscape at night. There’s also a point in the novel describing a small village outside of London where during the war, they removed all signposts from the countryside to make it virtually impossible for anyone on foot to navigate.
Ondaatje does this in the novel as well – he makes it deliberately difficult to navigate the narration and follow along, forcing us to fill in the gaps ourselves with a close reading. There’s a quote from the main character: “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.”
This really made my reading sessions somewhat overwhelming and hard to get through. I mentioned earlier that my reading sessions were short and easily broken up, but there were times where I just couldn’t keep reading because of how much information is just thrown at you to try and digest. It’s very difficult to follow and you really need to concentrate on what you’re reading.
Highlights from the Book
I highlighted a lot of lines from the book – for various reasons, these passages spoke to me. Unfortunately, I neglected to get the page numbers or which chapter they’re from before I returned the book, so it’ll have to remain a mystery to you.
“Nothing lasts. Not even literary or artistic fame protects worldly things around us”
– I’m not entirely sure why I highlighted this line. I think maybe I picked this out as one of the underlying themes of the novel. I don’t think that’s the overall message I got after finishing the book though.
“It was strange to consider their world being organized in such a godlike way by a woman who was remembering less and less of her own universe”
– This was referring to a bee colony and a woman from, whom Nathanial was buying a house. I just enjoyed the contrast displayed in this short sentence, which at the same time made a somewhat sad statement about the mental state of the woman it was describing.
“In any case, this was the government job I had enigmatically referred to that afternoon in Mrs. Malakite’s garden while the bees moved uncertainly in their hives and she had forgotten who I was.”
– There’s nothing particularly special about this line – I just highlighted it because it reminded me of how we sometimes tell stories. Something mentioned in passing gets elaborated on further. There was a lot of that happening in the novel.
“There was a hasty, determined destruction of evidence by all sides”
– The destruction of documents that was being described by Ondaatje put in my mind the image of the various Ministries in 1984.
“In this post-war world twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bent over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position”
– I think this might be referring to the kinds of atrocities committed on both sides of the war. Part of what Ondaatje illustrates in the novel is that we have this idea of the “good guys” winning the war, but – alongside the previous quote about destroying evidence – as his mother put it in the novel, “sins were various” no matter which side you look at.
“She was not in her right mind, of course, then. She was exhausted. A seizure had been activated in her and she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened”
– The fact that Nathanial’s sister, Rachel, had seizures in the novel turned out not to be an important detail. It helped to weave some minor points together in the story; but what made me highlight this was that I recently experienced a seizure for the first time. This part of the description: “…she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” resonates with me completely. One minute I was cooking breakfast, and the next thing I remember after is waking up in the back of an ambulance. I don’t know what happened other than what was told to me.
“Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?”
– This idea of pre-determined fates was explored a little bit in the novel. I’m not sure that the question was ever really answered. But personally, I believe that yes, we all have some sort of destiny and life exerts itself to put is in a particular path. We have some control over what direction we go, but ultimately, we end up where we’re supposed to be.
““So how long are you here? What do you do with yourself?”
It felt to me that both questions, side by side, showed a lack of interest.”
– I laughed a little at this quote. The way these questions were written, that’s exactly the tone I imagined. They feel like small talk made to say something and doesn’t require attentive listening.
“But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do”
– To be honest, I’m not sure why I picked this line out of the book. I think it was Nathanial realizing who he was and what his past meant to him and others.
“We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change”
– This is a very bleak outlook on how we act as youth. Still, it’s fairly accurate. I think we all acknowledge that we do stupid things in our youth (from teenagers on up including even our 20’s). As adults, we look down on teenagers and chalk up their actions to “they’re just teenagers”. So I guess I highlighted this line for truth. As for the previous line – I think it followed this line so now I understand it in context. Nathanial is asking how much damage he did as a teenager – and I suppose, asking himself if he changed.
I liked the book – I wasn’t really bored while reading, except for a few places here and there. But this was not an easy read, by any means, and I really feel like I need a palate cleanser in between. Luckily I have a couple of lighter books on the go that help in that regard – the only problem being that I feel the need to take a short reading break.
On Goodreads I rated Warlight 3 out of 5 stars. After reading through I like to read other reviews, and a lot of what I saw matched my opinion. It’s a solid book, but Part Three suffers a little compared to the rest of the book. This is where it really slows down, when Nathanial starts to recount his mother’s childhood and how she learned to become a spy.
I didn’t really think it fit with the rest of the book – I’m not sure I even understood how Nathanial knew all of these details. I think maybe he was making a lot of it up based on small bits of information he learned over the years. That could very well be what happened here. But to me it felt very unimportant to the overall story and I just wanted to breeze through it.
I recommend the novel, with the caveat that you should give yourself time to get through it. Don’t rush through it as I felt I had to.
What’s Next on the Podcast
So, what’s next for The Slow Reader? I have two books that I put on hold while I read Warlight: The MVP Machine and Master and Apprentice. The latter is a Star Wars novel set before The Phantom Menace. I intend to finish these books before the end of the year, but I’m not sure if I will get to the recording process before then. I anticipate that you’ll see a new episode in January 2020.
After those books I think I want to get through some shorter material, so I’ll have a look on my shelf and pick out some thin reading.
The music at the start of this episode was called Labile Polvere, recorded by Mattia Vlad Morleo. Find out more at Jamendo.com.
If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out previous episodes and books at https://slow-reader.pinecast.co. Share this with other people and leave me a comment on Twitter, @stephen_g. Thanks for listening!