These days I am rediscovering the joys of reading: reading not as something to fill in time on commuter trains or to be socially au courant, but as something to enjoy and savour. If a book bores me, no matter how glowing the reviews (always helped along by big publisher promotion campaigns), I will simply drop it.
Michael Ondatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is a book that I never thought of abandoning. It is a beautifully written story of a man trying to piece together the life of his mother and understand something about her work as a secret agent both during and after the war. In a way, this is actually a mystery story and it begins thus “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”. Left at home in London by their parents, the two young teenagers, Nathaniel and Rachel, run away from school, discover new aspects of the world around them with their guardian, who they refer to as The Moth, and generally try to come to terms with the absence of their mother.
As the novel progresses, Nathaniel, the narrator, discovers his mother worked as a secret agent during the war — and may also have continued after the war, working on much murkier and questionable mop-up assignments. As he tries to find out more about the woman he knew as Rose, he learns of shadowy projects she was linked to and dangerous missions abroad while still a mother of two. He tries to ask her about this double life but she is closed and guarded, completely enigmatic. But he needs to try to comprehend Rose and piece together her life so he carries on with his search, reflecting as he does so that “the lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out”.
Intertwined with his mother’s story are various other lives most notably that of ‘the boy on the roof’, but Nathaniel finds only a few pieces of the puzzle and he must use his imagination to fill in the blanks to try solve the mystery that is Rose.
Ondatje’s book is from a ‘my mother the spy’ genre, of which William Boyd’s Restless is an early and outstanding work. In Restless, a young woman is told by her mother that she thinks she is being watched and her life may be in danger. The daughter thinks her mother is losing her mind because as her and her parents’ lives have always been steeped in the banal and the mundane, she has no idea that in actual fact her mother worked for the British Intelligence Service. The mother tells her story in a narrative that switches alternately between present and past, and it is a tale of treachery and double dealings, ruthless manipulation and loss.
Boyd’s book is tightly plotted and fluidly written and it contains more certainty than Ondatje’s. Warlight is almost dream-like in some sequences — the imagined ‘flashbacks’ and reconstructions fill in for Rose’s own testimony — and it tells not just Rose’s story but the story of a family emotionally scarred by “a shattered and unreliable time”. It is a spy story but it is also about a journey that all of us embark on and pursue to varying extents: the search for one’s parents, the attempt to decipher their lives and understand the complexity of their personalities. Although some readers may find the book annoyingly short on definitive answers (like what became of Nathaniel’s father?), the style actually mirrors the intelligence environment it portrays, where things are implicit or secretive or coded, people and activities are invisible.
This is definitely a book to add to your reading list, a novel you‘ll want to go back to again and again for the evocative descriptions and the sadness involved in the way “we order our lives with barely held stories”.