CanLit on Campus: Ondaatje searches for identity in Warlight

The Journal reviews Michael Ondaatje’s latest book

Ondaatje’s Warlight explores themes of identity through the eyes of a young boy, Nathaniel.
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Supplied by Penguin Random House Publishing

From Canadian poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje comes Warlight— a case study of self-discovery at the height of Cold War secrecy.

After their parents disappear, Nathaniel and his sister adjust to life in post-World War II England with their new guardian, a stranger called “The Moth.”

Under The Moth’s care, their home transforms into a bustling meeting place for strange characters from all walks of life.

The guests speak in whispers, hinting at illegal activity when they meet. Ondaatje describes the living room where these exchanges take place in overwhelming detail, inviting readers to be guests themselves.

These guests’ curious behaviour prompts Nathaniel to question his mother’s connection to The Moth and his suspicious friends, wondering why his mother picked such a peculiar guardian for him.

But this search for his mother’s identity becomes secondary to Nathaniel’s new adventures.

Whether it’s illegal dog racing or breaking and entering, there is always a distraction from the search for his mother.

One of the guests, The Darter, introduces Nathaniel to this world of distraction, and justifies this unlawful lifestyle by claiming that police are “after more serious things.”

Quirks aside, Ondaatje tackles Nathaniel’s search for identity with a slow and thorough examination of his character’s complex experiences. He carefully creates fully drawn characters and informs the reader of their every interest and hobby, emphasizing their individuality.

Ondaatje’s use of detail makes the book more convincing and realistic, but at the price of pacing and turgid plot development. Even minor characters have pages dedicated to developing their background and it does little to advance the story.

Part of this character-heavy approach is Ondaatje’s use of nicknames like The Darter and The Moth. Ondaatje does this to connect one’s identity to characteristics, because not everybody is who they claim to be. Nicknames keep the reader distanced from the characters reflecting the way that Nathaniel was distanced from his own mother’s identity.  

Nathaniel reminisces on this pivotal time when he was trying to make sense of the world around him. This introspective stream of consciousness is the main thrust of the story.

Without the insight into Nathaniel’s thoughts, the events seem random and insignificant.

This personal touch reflects the universal coming of age experience of confusion and self-doubt.

As a young adult, Nathaniel learns the importance of family, as the visiting strangers become his surrogate parents. These subtle lessons are a testament to Ondaatje’s seasoned writing. 

Ondaatje flips through revelations, vividly shaping his characters as they learn lessons over the course of decades. Their personal evolution is intriguing though drawn out as Ondaatje taunts the reader with small pieces of information at a time.

In the end, the information given about the characters paints a thorough picture of their interconnected lives and proves why Ondaatje is one of Canada’s best writers.

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