“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals,” thus begins the adult narrator of Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Warlight, released by Penguin Random House June 16.
Nathaniel is only 14 and his sister, Rachel 16, when their parents tell them one summer day in 1945 that they will be going away for a year without them to Singapore on special assignment. The teens wordlessly watch their mother pack her trunk for the year- long trip.
The children nickname their shady and mysterious caregivers The Moth and The Darter. The Moth is extraordinarily kind and watchful , while The Darter, evasive and edgy, takes them on midnight expeditions to smuggle greyhound racing dogs. Then one day, the children find their mother’s trunk in the basement, full of the clothes she had so carefully packed. Where was she? What was she doing? And why couldn’t they know?
Nathaniel’s and Rachel’s lives are haunted by these questions. Nathaniel will come to terms with his mother’s life and her choices, but Rachel will harbor a lifelong resentment of her abandonment.
The story is told in flashbacks to 1945, in shadows dark and mysterious and slowly unfolds as our narrator becomes an adult and enters the Foreign Office where he is hired to clean up documents and compromising trails after the war. “Anything questionable was burned or shredded under myriad hands. So revisionist histories could begin,” he writes. Nathaniel will spend his spare time sleuthing through documents that might reveal “the obscure rigging” of his mother’s life.
“You return to that earlier time armed with the present,” Nathaniel says looking back, “And no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.”
In Warlight, Ondaatje examines a theme that occurs throughout much of his body of work – “The lost sequence in a life,” he writes, “Is the thing we always search out.” He reminds us that often it is only through the refracted lens of adulthood, that we can truly understand the past.