It’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery—or is it the other way around? However you look at Michael Ondaatje’s latest book Warlight it’s a compelling story about a puzzling set of relationships. The story is set in London right after the Second World War. When 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are informed by their parents that work will be taking them far away to Singapore, they are stunned to learn they will be left behind in the care of a vague family friend they call “The Mole”. Feeling abandoned, the young people become increasingly confused when they find their mother’s fully packed trunk still in the basement after she leaves. Where is she? Why did she not take them?
Life for Nate and Rachael soon becomes filled with a strange and nefarious assortment of characters. The Mole, who supposedly worked as an air-raid warden on the roof of the Grosvenor Hotel resumes his pre-war duties as catering manager and is often absent, leaving the siblings to fend for themselves. An odd assortment of people begin frequenting their home and before long, Nate and Rachel become involved in strange adventures. Piecing together fragments of information they pick up along the way, Nate realizes his mother is involved in what appears to be covert intelligence work for the government, a continuation of her war work.
Thanks to The Mole, Nate gets part-time work after school and on weekends in the hotel kitchen and has a romantic affair with another teenaged hotel employee known as Agnes. A shady character called “The Darter” who was once a prize-winning boxer and possible criminal becomes a regular in their lives. He takes Nate along on his mysterious nightly runs smuggling illegal greyhounds and other secret cargo on a barge up the Thames River during dark London nights.
Ondaatje has a keen knowledge of London and its wartime buildings. It’s a treat to follow the observations of Nathaniel as he accompanies The Darter around the city. His sister becomes increasingly less visible until a dramatic event changes the course of their lives. The author is a skilled wordsmith and I was totally engaged in the writing, the psychology of the characters and the progression of their lives. I was a teensy bit disappointed in how it wrapped up but that’s just me. I’d rate it 8 out of 10.