Book Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

This book club pick was also recommended by a friend as well as being longlisted for the Booker in 2018.

There are two halves to this book covering two timelines. The first is set in 1945 when fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel are left by their parents in the care of a man they call The Moth. They’re told their parents are going to Asia and a year goes by without a word from them. In the meantime, The Moth encourages and embraces a number of house guests, some of whom the children suspect are criminals, who protect and influence them in various ways. The second half of the book is set when Nathaniel is twenty-eight as he sets about trying to make sense of what happened in his childhood. What an intriguing premise as I settled down to read.

The story is told in first person from Nathaniel’s point of view in a memoir format which served to distance me from the story. And while it’s a fantastic story filled with spies and cold war intrigue, it left me frustrated, with little feeling for any of the characters, many of whom are known only by their nicknames. They meander in and out of Nathaniel’s life as he navigates work in a hotel, learning about and experiencing sex and gambling. These side issues and events had little bearing on the growth of Nathaniel as a person. Nor did it provide any enlightenment about what had happened to his parents.

The second half was better when the grown up Nathaniel searches for answers to bring pieces of his childhood together. His focus centred on his mother and we never learned what really happened to his father. Gaps like this left me frustrated. Perhaps that was the intention of the author – to get the reader to come to their own conclusions.

There are interesting aspects such as the cold war, grey hound racing, the blitz, gathering of intelligence and smuggling. There was a lot of interesting historical context and information which meandered through the novel, which only served to distance me. I never felt close to any of the characters and never connected to them.

Perhaps it’s this style of writing that bothered me. Either way, it wasn’t as enjoyable as I’d hoped or even expected from the blurb. There you have it. It was a disappointment and just wasn’t for me.

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