Wednesday, October 3, 2018


Title:  Warlight
Author:  Michael Ondaatje
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0525521194 / 978-0525521198

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who many have been criminals."

Favorite Quote:  "I suppose we choose whatever life we feel safest in."

"Whenever my sister and I recalled this story, it felt like part of a fairy tale we did not quite understand." That, in a nutshell, summarizes how I feel about this book. I had a lot of trouble following the story. I got lost and never really recovered. So, here goes my attempt at an explanation.

The book begins with a story being told of the aftermath of World War II. The opening sentence sets a somber and mysterious tone that matches the cover of the book. I am intrigued by fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his sister Rachel. That opening pulls me in. I want to know more. Questions abound. Who are Nathaniel and Rachel? Who are their parents? Why did they leave? Where did they go? Who are the mysterious caretakers of Nathaniel and Rachel?

The rest of the book are in theory the revelations that answer these question except that for me, the history never really gets clarified. The book weaves through multiple time periods - the war, the time when the parents leave Nathaniel and Rachel, and a time years later as Nathaniel tells this story. It is a story within a story within a story. With character names like the Moth and the Pimlico Darter, this book sounds as though it is a children's fantasy adventure. However, it is not. This is a story of war, smuggling, violence and cruelty.

Historically, the term warlight refers to the blackouts during the war. The objective of the blackouts, of course, was to create an opaque, absolute darkness and to let no light through. If the enemy could not see you, then perhaps, they could not attack. To me, the title is literal - this is a book about the war - and metaphorical. Memories are a hazy view, clearly visible to only the one on the inside, the one in whose mind the memories exists.

The metaphor holds because I think this is a story about memory. It is a statement on the fact that memories are viewpoints not the truth, and they should not be taken as the truth. The confusion and the haziness is part and parcel of what a memory is. This story within a story is an adult Nathaniel looking back on his childhood. As such, he brings to his entire life experience, and he brings to it his imagination. As we all do, he paints in the holes in our memories with his imagination to create a complete image. Memories are our truth, but they are not the truth.

The result of this narrative perspective is that Nathaniel and the book tell me, the reader, this story. The "telling" creates a distance that is difficult to overcome; as such, I find myself removed from the story. Viewing the story as a hazy memory further widens that distance. The philosophical premise is intriguing, and I can see spending hours discussing it with friends. However, unfortunately, reading and trying to understanding an entire story based on it was too much of a challenge for me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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