Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje is a nonlinear, atmospheric novel set in post-World War II London. The city is thick with fog, electricity is spotty, and a sense of foreboding hangs over the story. Despite the war’s end and a desire for normalcy, “… Partisans fighters refusing defeat” make their presence known.
The storyline follows 14 year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel, whose parents have inexplicably gone away and left them in charge of a mysterious man who the kids name The Moth. Into this unusual household, the Moth invites equally odd characters such as the Darter, an ex-fighter and Olive Lawrence, a geographer and ethnographer. She, like the Moth, Darter and several others, acts in loco parentis to the children, albeit not in the usual family manner.
Slowly, Ondaatje unravels a complex backstory that revolves around an unwitting Nathaniel and Rachel. Characters are not who they seem to be, long held secrets are exposed, active spy networks step from the shadows and determined adversaries pose grave danger.
Scattered into this often dark setting are historical tidbits (previously unknown to me), such as the collective efforts of civilians, both in and outside of London, who in small (removing or switching street names) and large ways, help win the war.
Some of my favorite parts are when the book’s eccentric mix of characters find wonder in London’s blitz-ravished condition, as when Olive Lawrence describes a cricket making a “sweet quiet whistle… full of high Cs and D’s. They can reach as high as F at the end of summer….“ That familiar noise that we hear from crickets is “made with the rub of wings and not by breath, and this much conversation means there will be rain.”