Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight tells the compelling tale of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel. Abandoned by their parents at the close of the Second World War, they are left in the custody of The Moth, a taciturn, inscrutable man who moves into the family home. With The Moth comes an eccentric cast of acquaintances, including The Darter (an ex-boxer turned small-time criminal) and his girlfriend, the geographer and ethnographer Olive Lawrence. Later we meet Marsh Felon, a thatcher’s son who breaks his hip as a boy, when working on the childhood home of Nathaniel’s mother, Rose, before going on to become a night-climber of buildings in Cambridge and London, a BBC nature presenter and an intelligence operative. Felon, it turns out, is the missing clue to the mystery surrounding Nathaniel’s estranged mother, which is at the heart of the novel. This might all sound a little zany and busy, but Ondaatje, with his measured prose and assured sense of timing, braids these strands expertly.
Warlight is a novel that makes its moves in the dark. Some of the book’s most memorable moments occur at night, when the world is reangled into an off-kilter and often illicit reality. At night The Darter sneaks