Ondaatje’s Warlight is a masterfully crafted post-WWII intrigue, rife with subtlety and elegant prose, brilliant characters with shady histories. It is a story about secrets, both personal and national, about nuance and perception, and the sometimes ambiguity of relationships.
Nathaniel and his sister find themselves placed into the care of a somewhat disreputable, spider-like character known only to them as The Moth, a benevolently neglectful, secretly fierce guardian. Their father has been absent for sometime, ostensibly away on business. Now their mother allegedly leaves the children in order to rendezvous with her absent husband.
Years pass. The children grow, allowed the freedom to roam at night with a runner of illicit goods through London’s abandoned canals, learning the questionable honour of thieves and sellers of secrets. But they are safe. The Moth makes sure of that, even after the children’s mother makes a fateful reappearance.
When Nathaniel finds a career of his own as an adult, he finds himself working for a division of England’s secret service, buried in the archives in an avalanche of research. And there, among the must and mystery he handles every day, he finds the pieces of his parents’ history, most particularly of his mother, and the reality is staggering.
Ondaatje’s story is memorable, subtle, insidious, and timeless. It has all the qualities of a blockbuster novel with none of the tackiness. A page-turner, but also an eloquent moral tale filled with ambiguity. This is absolutely a must-read.by