Sunday, 13 September 2020

Book review: Warlight, Michael Ondaatje (2018)

I bought this, like a number of recent reads, at an op-shop. It cost me a few dollars but there’s no sticker on the cover so I’m not sure of the exact amount.

Whatever it was, it was good value as I enjoyed reading this gentle thriller that cleaves to a modern method of mixing popular tropes with a literary style. The early chapters – when everything is embryonic and unformed, an ambience suited to the narrative, which at that point deals with teenagers – are wonderful, evoking for me my own youth and filling me with long-forgotten feelings.

Feelings I hadn’t met with for many a day. The book tries to achieve something difficult: the realisation of an atmosphere belonging to a time and place that is, now, almost forgotten except by a few (very elderly) individuals, unless you take opportunities to vicariously experience the feeling of international conflict through movies or books of fiction and history and journalism.

At moments, the word “light” appears and reappears in different settings, with different modifiers, and the title is a word that crops up two or three times in the course of the storytelling. It is designed to describe for the reader a shadowy, uncertain and crepuscular landscape where people aren’t always who they profess to be, where things happen for reasons that might never be revealed, and where the differences between truth and lies are sometimes infinitesimally tiny.

It’s in such a world, in 1945, that Nathaniel (“Stitch”) and Rachel (“Wren”) find themselves when their parents disappear to relocate to Singapore. Allegedly. What is incontestable is that the two leave their children in England. Initially they are enrolled in boarding school but they hate it so they flee the confines of their institutions and return home where The Moth functions are their guardian. Even then they attend school patchily, and The Moth introduces them to The Darter, another reliable but shadowy individual, who takes Nathaniel out on errands on a boat in the evenings, ferrying greyhounds and other cargo from one part of London to another.

It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the book, so I’ll stop there and just add that it seems to me – who has been writing about the use of genre conventions in literary fiction for months now – that we are where we are because of a need for determinacy, a distrust or even aversion to exactly the kinds of liminal tactics and strategies that ‘Warlight’ appears to deploy. 

In fact, the certainty that genre tropes allow is most suitable for our unironic age, a time when people must take sides and where to prevaricate – or even to be seen to do so – is to be considered a betrayer of your cause. The fashion for genre literary fiction is as much a product of the age as shaming on social media, Antifa protests, and Kenosha, WI.

Though at times ‘Warlight’ was, in my view, somewhat overdetermined, I enjoyed reading it for the reasons outlined in this review, and recommend it to anyone who wants a pre-Covid page-turner.

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