Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight (2018)

If The Cat’s Table (2011) was a slow and steady unravelling of a young boy’s memories, yarn taut and tidy, Warlight is a mass of moth-eaten fragments, remnants of a finely-crafted woollen garment pulled from a trunk. A thing of beauty, yes, but the devastation is the first thing you notice and it’s hard to see past it.

Some characters in Warlight are knowing and deliberate, but Nathaniel is restless and searching and, because readers experience the story through Nathaniel’s memories and musings, the story is imbued with a sense of something-like-wonder but with a simmering discomfort beneath.

When Nathaniel and his sister Rachel are young, their mother orchestrates an elaborate pantomime surrounding preparations she is making for a journey.

How she presents the situation to the children is one thing. How events transpire is quite another.

Even shortly after her departure, the children realise that what they have been told is at odds with what they discover to be true. They have evidence of the discrepancy; they do not have information.

Those details are tremendously important, because nestled amongst them are the contradictions which reveal the gap between what was to be believed and what is known to be true.

But those details don’t matter at all in another sense because all that really matters is her absence: her absence and what that means for two children who expected to have a mother with them and, then, must learn to live without a mother.

Other relationships take on a new importance in this situation and these relationships underpin the bulk of the story which unfolds. Readers, like the children, never really catch hold of the parents, and those readers who long for a linear post-WWII story will flounder more than most.

The floundering is important, too. Because when things are topsy-turvy, realizations slip into the cracks.

But memory is unreliable and this compounds the situation for, as time passes and understanding matures, there is another layer of recognition and comprehension, but the process is not only incomplete but inherently imperfect.

“I am still unable to give precise ages to the individuals who had taken over our parents’ home. There’s no trustworthy recording of ages when seen through the eyes of youth, and I suppose the war had further confused the way we read age or the hierarchies of class.”

And even more fundamentally, “People are not who or where we think they are.”

Sometimes, even when we are children, we can recognize a hinge, upon which trust and betrayal swing. “The Agnes I knew during that summer was not the Agnes she would be later. Even then I knew it was.”

But we cannot fully grasp the significance of this recognition. So Warlight is about the reassembly, the knitting together of what we once believed and what we now believe:

“Is this how we discover the truth, evolve? By gathering together such unconfirmed fragments?”

Which also requires reinterpretation and reassessing – not simply adding new information – for reevaluating the past also transforms the present-day.

Fresh understanding changes our ideas about our relationships, our lives, not only in time but across time: “Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?”

And, if not, then what?

My favourite part of the novel is the sense of refraction which creates small clusters of meaning throughout the story.

Very early in the novel, for instance, readers observe the family listening to a radio programme, The Naturalist’s Hour on BBC, which reminds the mother of Suffolk, the sensory details in the broadcast invoking that landscape for her freshly, even though she is now distant from it, geographically and emotionally.

Meanwhile, Rachel and Nathaniel are indoors listening to the broadcast, but down on the carpet putting together a jigsaw, a mass of blue sky.

None of them actually inhabits that landscape, but nonetheless, they do experience it. Just as, midway through the novel, readers learn that German troops wandered that same “bewildering Suffolk landscape” during the war, where  “not one road sign existed”, because the inhabitants had dismantled the signage to confuse invaders.

These reflections of images gather in readers’ minds, scuttle about like so many unanswered questions.

What is more real, the landscape of our childhood memories (like the mother’s Suffolk)?

Or the landscape that we inhabit when we are grown and more fully absorb some aspects of our surroundings?

Or some other landscape which has nothing to do with what can be named or identified with signposts?

Or unmarked between-spaces that do not even register as specific places but become associated with devastating or thrilling experiences in our lives?

Or, is darkness more real than anything else?

As Nathaniel remarks to Agnes, when they are lying on the carpet in an unfurnished room:

“We would have been under the table, there would normally have been a meal over us. I say this as I look up, seeing nothing in the dark.”

The details of that meal matter a great deal and not at all. Many of the ordinary details of Nathaniel’s life are muddled and uncertain, and this muddy mess matters too, but not as much as his concern about the space in his memory where other details that were overlooked might have resided.

The hardest part is not that Nathaniel sees nothing when he looks up at the dark, but that he is still longing for that meal. Which he has never even seen.

It is no more real than the grainy bits the moths have left behind on the wool. Although when you rub your fingertips together, a golden dust is left behind.



  1. whisperinggums August 31, 2018 at 4:07 am - Reply

    Lovely review Buried. It’s a while since I’ve read Ondaatje, but he is such a beautiful writer. It sounds like it offers some things to ponder – which I always like in a novel – I don’t like ideas wrapped up and presented as a done deal. Still, unless someone in my reading group pushes for this, I don’t expect it will make it’s way to my reading list.

    • Buried In Print August 31, 2018 at 7:52 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Whispering. His prose is so beautiful – that poet’s heart, I suppose. And you’re quite right: it’s a book best read “in company” unless you have a particular devotion to his writing to start with.

  2. TheLiterary Hoarders August 27, 2018 at 10:21 am - Reply

    Beautiful review!! I loved reading your thoughts on this. I have not read any of Ondaatje yet – however, I did just pick up at the campus bookstore in the English texts section, a copy of The English Patient. I haven’t read or seen the movie! I love what you had to say here about the book – perhaps this is the one I read first over The English Patient? I suspect Warlight will be on all the prize longlists due out soon….

    • Buried In Print August 27, 2018 at 1:29 pm - Reply

      Thank you! You can’t go wrong with The English Patient. But there are a lot of similarities with Warlight, the question of burdensome pasts and romance and wartime for example; as you say, it’s likely to make an appearance on a prizelist or two (in addition to the Man Booker) and it’s always nice to read when others are reading so there are opportunities for bookchatting.

  3. Laila@BigReadingLife August 22, 2018 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    This is a beautiful review. I am ashamed to admit I’ve never read Ondaatje.

    • Buried In Print August 22, 2018 at 4:02 pm - Reply

      Thank you and you shouldn’t feel ashamed: we can read and read and read some more and still have enormous gaps in our reading experience. Best not to spend time worrying about it, better to just pick up a book and fall in!

  4. Naomi August 19, 2018 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    Wow. Has it really been that long since The Cat’s Table? You’d think I would have had enough time to read it by now. 😉
    I’m very curious to find out if this will be on The G List…

    • Buried In Print August 21, 2018 at 11:13 am - Reply

      It seems like a fixture on the list already; I can’t imagine it not being there. But each jury is different, so who knows? I feel as though you might enjoy this one even more than Cat’s anyhow, if that helps.

      • Naomi August 22, 2018 at 2:31 pm - Reply

        Yes, that’s good to know.

  5. heavenali August 16, 2018 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    Beautiful review. This book is already high on my wishlist. I love books that use memory and characters understanding of others in this kind of way. This sounds like a complex but rewarding novel.

    • Buried In Print August 21, 2018 at 10:58 am - Reply

      Thanks, Ali. Have you read others of his, or is this one on your wishlist for the English connections? It is complex, but it’s also the kind of book you could just gobble up, if you weren’t keen to pull apart some of the layers in crafting (which I enjoy doing), and you’re quite right in saying it’s rewarding.

      • heavenali August 21, 2018 at 11:55 am - Reply

        I read The English Patient and loved it. I think I read another of his but can’t remember the title.

        • Buried In Print August 21, 2018 at 2:37 pm - Reply

          If that’s your favourite, I think you will love this one too. Although I remember feeling a little closer to some of his other women characters than I do here and that might have contributed to my enjoyment of TEP as well. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts when you get there!

  6. annelogan17 August 16, 2018 at 7:17 am - Reply

    What a beautiful review! I really enjoyed reading this. I haven’t read Warlight (probably never will, at least not for awhile) but it sounds like you enjoyed it, even though it was a bit muddled. Good to know that going in at least!

    • Buried In Print August 29, 2018 at 12:18 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Anne. He’s just not your cup of tea, or you’re just overloaded with other CanLit right now? It’s more a question of it being fragmented – deliberately – rather than being muddled (not that I’m trying to convince you – although I do go in for that kind of thing).

      • annelogan17 September 1, 2018 at 9:54 pm - Reply

        Ok so weird, but I can never reply to your comments on my dashboard!!! So apologies if I don’t respond sometimes, that why. Yes, I won’t be reading Warlight simply because I have so much other reading to do-I’m interviewing A BUNCH of can-lit authors in October, so more info on that to come soon!!!

        • Buried In Print September 2, 2018 at 2:37 pm - Reply

          That is weird, Anne, but thanks for saying so, as sometimes I do get a notice that you have “liked” my comment but you haven’t answered the question (I think this might be the first time you have!) – so that explains it. Enjoy the interviewing: I hope it doesn’t add TOO much to your TBR. (But I bet it will.)

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