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Book Review: Warlight

Through the lives of two siblings, Micheal Ondaatje's latest novel talks about war, violence, spy games, lies, memories, love and families.

Book: Warlight Author: Michael Ondaatje Publisher: Jonathan Cape Pages: 290 Price: Rs 599

Warlight, Michael Ondaatje's latest - his seventh novel in a career as a published author that goes back more than 50 years - is set in London in the aftermath of World War II. Everywhere the city bore evidence of devastation, the destruction caused in the Blitz, the sustained air attacks by the German Luftwaffe in 1941-42, everywhere to see.

A similar tumult hit the lives of Nathaniel and Rachel Williams, 14 and 16 years old respectively, when their parents left them 'for a year' in the custody of their third-floor boarder, a somewhat mysterious man the children nicknamed 'the Moth'. Their father had been transferred to Singapore and their mother had to accompany him. Or so the children were told. But they realised soon enough that their mother had not joined their father, and that the real reason for their leaving was very different - one that their guardian would not tell them.

In the absence of their parents, the children's life shed 'the pattern and restraint of family habits' - the Moth did not like to cook, and so they began eating dinner from the local wheel barrow. In the evenings, their home, 'orderly and spare' under their parents' watch, was taken over by a motley of Moth's shady friends, who drank, spoke loudly and played music until the early hours of the morning. The most singular of them was someone the children called the 'Darter', once a well-known boxer but now part of a shadowy smuggling racket involving greyhound dogs, who took part in the illegal dog races in and around London.

Without the restrictive presence of their parents, Nathaniel and Rachel's lives slid into more adventurous, transgressive paths. He stopped going to school, got a job washing dishes, fell in love, had sex with a girl he meets at work. Later, he began helping the Darter transport dogs, and contraband goods up and down the waterways fanning out from the Thames.

This, the opening third of the book, is very Dickensian in the way it uses the child's perspective - places, people, happenings, are described factually, intuitively, without quite understanding what they mean. As a device, it segues with the broader schematic curve of the novel, the later bits when Nathaniel looks back on those years of his childhood, attempts to fill in the gaps and piece together the narrative of what happened to his mother.

In the broader scheme of the novel it is like the aalap, the opening overture of the raga - meandering and exquisite. Like with the raga, all the strands are touched upon in this first half - the knowledge, for instance, that their mother was a spy - but their beauty and significance manifested only as the pace quickens later.

Warlight is a novel about war, violence, spy games, lies, memories, love and families - a subject that Ondaatje had so masterfully handled in The English Patient, the novel he's best known for. But like all great novels, a description of what it's about does not even begin to capture the half of its elusive, heartfelt beauty, the masterful delicacy of Ondaatje's craft and the astonishing beauty of his language. "We order our lives with barely held stories," the novel ends. "As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape...sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete..." This is a novel one could read again and again.

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