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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

I have a feeling that while I call this book a masterpiece, listing certain passages as proof, others may use the very same passages as proof that the plot and the characters are fragmented. This is not a book with a simple plot, the reader has to think and concentrate, but will be rewarded for the effort.

I am going to have to read the first chapter again. It is a masterclass in how to begin a novel. Those first twelve pages introduce many of the protagonists but also the sense of mystery and intrigue behind what is happening. Twelve pages in and you are utterly hooked.

Our narrator, who is not named as Nathaniel until the third chapter, is 14 at the start of the book, and his sister Rachel 16. Their parents are preparing to leave for the Far East and the children will be sent to boarding schools. During school holidays they are to be cared for by a lodger, nicknamed The Moth. It is London in 1945 and the war has just ended. Their mother has been involved in secret work during the war, but this is shrouded in mystery. "No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are." This sums up the situation perfectly. The children suspect the lodger is a criminal.

In that first chapter The Moth tells a story about Rose, the children's mother. He describes her skillfully driving men to the coast through the darkness of the wartime curfew. As she listens Rose holds the iron in mid-air, drawn back into the shadowy story. Many childhood tales are introduced, memories of a family of thatchers, renewing the roof on their grandparent's house. The fall of the youngest in a gust of wind, "the thick, wet thud of him on the paving stones." The weeks he spent in the house, unable to move around. The chapter ends with the narrator holding a picture of his mother as a teenager. One senses this is happening many years later. He sees that she is "Already incognito". So many of the images and references in that first chapter are picked up later in the story, sounding strangely familiar when you come across them again, having almost forgotten.

What follows in the next 270 pages is a masterful piece of storytelling. We see Nathaniel's strange London childhood, surrounded by the unusual characters assigned to watch over him and his sister. Then the adulthood search for the truth about his mother Rose. What did she really do during the war and why did the children have to be abandoned? He gets a job in the civil service that allows him access to files and records and over the course of time begins to piece together the story. That wonderfully twisting tale is packed with little details, facts and clues that need to be read again and again to fully understand all the secrets.

I loved Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient, which was made into one of my all time favourite films. I hope that someone has the skill and patience to do the same for this wonderful novel. There are so many threads and storylines to play with.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Jonathan Cape, RRP $35.00


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