Light changes everything we see. We see a thing because of the light reflected on it. Such are the memories of Nathaniel. His youth is seen through the light of the war.
The novel begins as the war draws to a close in 1945. Nathaniel Williams is 14 years old. His parents leave for Singapore where his father will be relocated to work for a year. He and his elder sister Rachel are to return to school as boarders this time rather than as day students. In the interim, the children are left in the care of Walter, a mysterious figure, often referred to as the “The Moth”. Their mother Rose claims to know Walter from fire-watching, but conversations overheard by Nathaniel suggest they had secretive roles in the war together. The children suspect “The Moth” to be a professional thief.
The return to school is uncomfortable for both children. Nathaniel is unsteady after separation from his family and home. Walter allows them to come home, and go to school as day students. When they return they find their home inhabited by a variety of “The Moth’s” questionable friends.
One friend, known as “The Pimlico Darter”, is a boxer currently engaged in smuggling greyhounds for an illegal gambling ring. Nathaniel finds himself at home amongst this troupe of inscrutable and sometimes dubious characters.
“The Darter” functions as a literal and figurative ferryman as he leads Nathaniel towards adulthood. Through him, Nathaniel meets a waitress who takes him to an empty house her brother is selling. The two become intimate, but she does not divulge her true identity. Nathaniel then becomes “The Darter’s” accomplice moving the dogs in a mussel boat along the Thames, and later other more dangerous cargo.
Nathaniel’s parents do not return home. In fact, Rachel and he find evidence that their mother never went to Singapore. The mystery of who she really is, and where she went is the catalyst for Nathaniel’s transformation.
Warlight is a coming of age novel, an intrigue, and deeply poetic. Themes of memory, identity and attachment are finely woven into the fabric of this work. Ondaatje illuminates how trauma becomes the lens through which one experiences life. Those who have enjoyed the works of Marguerite Duras, or John le Carré will be transported by this novel.