Warlight by Michael Ondaatje review – magic from a past master

Michael Ondaatje is at the peak of his powers with the story of a man piecing together his troubled adolescence

‘We have no memories from our childhood,” said Freud, “only memories that pertain to our childhood.” It feels like this idea – that memory is the construct of the older self looking back – has been the engine driving much of Michael Ondaatje’s extraordinary literary career. Warlight, his eighth work of prose, is narrated by Nathaniel, a 28-year-old reflecting on a strange and adventure-filled adolescence.

The novel opens in 1945. Nathaniel, who is 14, and his sister, Rachel, have been left by their parents in London, in the care of a mysterious figure called the Moth. The parents have ostensibly gone to Singapore for Nathaniel’s “smoke-like” father’s job. We soon learn, though, that it is the mother, Rose, who’s behind the flight from Britain and that she’s a woman with a captivating double life as a spy.

Nathaniel is a few years older than Mynah, the narrator of Ondaatje’s last novel, The Cat’s Table (2011), but the voice and quality of perception are familiar. Both books in turn look back to what remains, for me, Ondaatje’s masterpiece, the exquisite, semi-fictional memoir Running in the Family (1982), in which the author strives, through writing, to retrieve a childhood that has been lost to him.

The first half of Warlight shows us Nathaniel’s sentimental education in parentless, postwar London. He suffers a brief spell, like Ondaatje, as a boarder at Dulwich college; then, as a day boy, he is initiated by the Moth into a series of secret societies. He begins to work at weekends among the “mostly immigrant staff” whom the Moth oversees at the Criterion hotel; he falls in with the Darter, a shady greyhound smuggler; he meets Agnes, whose estate agent brother lets the two of them into a series of empty homes. Everything in this world seems both promising and enigmatic, like the clue to a vast adult conspiracy, but then, that is what life is like for most children.

The novel’s second half sees Nathaniel, now in his late 20s, in “a distant village, a walled garden”. We come to understand that the book is not about him or, rather, he morphs into the kind of withdrawn and occluded narrator that Philip Roth employs so masterfully in Nemesis. Nathaniel is employed in piecing together the lives of his now-dead mother, the secret agent Rose and a man – the bizarrely named Marsh Felon – who is a “thatcher, naturalist, an authority on battle sites” and many other things besides. Nathaniel recognises that he’s only able to “step into fragments of their story”, but with the reader leaning closely over his shoulder, he pieces together something that ends up feeling like it could be close to the truth, an explanation of “the confused and vivid dream of my youth”.

The author and critic David Shields wrote persuasively about the way memory operates. He said that in order to “fill in the holes, we turn our memories into specific images, which our minds understand as representing a specific experience, object or thought”. If we think about memory this way – as a medium of visual metaphors – then we begin to understand the extraordinary intensity of Ondaatje’s writing style: he is a memory artist. The unique reality effect that he achieves in his best work is the product of his ability to summon images with an acuity that makes the reader experience them with the force of something familiar, intimate and truthful.

Warlight is a novel that comes back to you as a series of sharply perceived images: Nathaniel at night with the Darter on the Thames; Nathaniel and Agnes in a grand west London house, making love as greyhounds run riot around them; Marsh Felon as an early parkour artist scaling the buildings of Cambridge and London. Kant coined a term for a work of fiction that appears as real as the material world: hypotyposis. Warlight sucked me in deeper than any novel I can remember; when I looked up from it, I was surprised to find the 21st century still going on about me.

We might think of Warlight and The Cat’s Table, which share so many echoes and correspondences, as a pair: the beginning of Ondaatje’s late period. Unlike JM Coetzee, a writer often cited alongside Ondaatje as among the greatest living practitioners of the novel in English, late-period Ondaatje is expansive, readable and generous-hearted. Warlight’s brilliance comes from telling a familiar story – the female spy has become an established literary trope, from William Boyd to Simon Mawer – in a way that gives us all the pleasures of the genre without ever feeling hackneyed or predictable. It’s as if WG Sebald wrote a Bond novel.

“We order our lives with barely held stories,” Nathaniel says at the end of the book. In Warlight, these “barely held stories” knit into a work of fiction as rich, as beautiful, as melancholy as life itself, written in the visionary language of memory.

This article was amended on 5 June 2018 to correct the publication date of Running in the Family

• Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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