It was interesting to read this soon after reading The Transcriptionist by Kate Atkinson. As in that book, the author introduces us to the world of espionage in Britain both during and after World War II, and shows us the disruptive and formative ways in which it shaped all those who played a part in it.
Nathaniel Williams begins the narration of this story at age 14. He is left alone with his 16-year-old sister Rachel by their parents, who say they need to go on some mysterious trip to Singapore on business. They tell the kids that a household lodger they call “The Moth” will be their caretaker. Thereafter, other adults come and go into their lives who are presumably friends of The Moth, but Nathaniel knows little about who they are or what they do, and as a result, we are kept in the dark as well:
“’The house felt more like a night zoo,’ Nathaniel says, ‘with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer.’”
Nathaniel finds he likes them though, and both he and Rachel to gravitate to some of them who serve as surrogate parental figures. Then a shocking and unexpected development occurs and upends their lives once again.
The second half of the book takes place when Nathaniel is 28. Nathaniel has gotten a job with British Intelligence, and his job, along with others, “was to unearth whatever evidence might still remain of actions that history might consider untoward.…” Presumably, such evidence would then be eliminated. But Nathaniel uses his access to these hidden documents to try and discover who his parents were; who the others were in his life; and what became of all of them.
Nathaniel pieces together what fragments he can find, but comes to learn that “[n]o one really understands another’s life or even death,” nor can he even understand who he himself is. Because, he muses, “[w]hat I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then.…” But who were these people who taught him really? And why were they all in his life? And can he change anything when he does discover the truth?
Discussion: Ondaatje uses the word “warlight” in the novel to refer to dim lights during blackouts to provide the minimum illumination necessary for the population to function. This too seems to refer to the barest understanding that Nathaniel and we the readers will get of what happened to his parents and to those involved in British Intelligence generally. It’s a very clever narrative trope, but not so satisfying for one who prefers a floodlight on events.
Moreover, I felt a bit like I had witnessed great cruelty toward Nathaniel and Rachel, and I felt sadness over the unwitting and unwilling sacrifices they made for their country. And yet, because of Ondaatje’s style and his use of a narrative “warlight,” which distanced me from the characters, my sense of outrage was more intellectual than emotional; closer to a vague sense of melancholy than a gut-wrenching reading experience.
Ondaatje is an excellent wordsmith, and well-constructed prose is always a joy to read. But it is a “literary” joy rather than the emotional immersion, as one has, for example, in fiction by Jojo Moyes.
Note: This novel made The Man Booker Prize 2018 Longlist (announced July 23, 2018). The author won the 1992 Man Booker Prize for “The English Patient”.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, 2018