by Michael Ondaatje
In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals… I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen…
The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war… [Our guardian was] “The Moth”, a name we invented. Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises. [I was called “Stitch” and my sister, Rachel known as “Wren”].
It’s 1945. The WWII armistice has been reached but the war still rages behind the scenes. A piece of paper and a handshake doesn’t cut it for renegades bent on revenge. Behind the screen labeled peace, a shadow war continues. Warlight is the coming-of-age story of two abandoned children, living in their family home, under the care of a “guardian” appointed by their mother. The guardian, she insists, is someone they met years earlier.
The narrator is Nathaniel, now an adult. Part 1 covers the time immediately after their parents left in 1945. Part 2 begins in 1959 and chronicles his career in British Intelligence where he is able to surreptitiously scour archives to search for his mother’s deepest secrets. His sister, Rachel, appears in both parts, more as a jack-in-the-box, popping up now and again to be a counterbalance to Nathaniel’s devil-may-care personality.
As I read along, I felt like I was in a Twilight Light Zone episode. The dialogue filtered just enough to obscure the depth of its meaning. Each encounter or observation creating a jigsaw puzzle piece the reader must gather to form the final picture.
Part 1 begins with Nathaniel and Rachel seeing their father off at the airport headed to Singapore for a year on a new job. Their mother, Rose, plans to join him soon. Sometime after Rose left, the children discover her carefully packed trunk hidden in the basement. If Rose didn’t go to Singapore, where is she and what has been she doing?
The years pass with never a word from either parent. It has been a crazy time with strangers wandering in-and-out of their house at all hours. Who were these people? “The Moth” calls them colleagues, not friends. How does their mother know all these people? Or does she? How do they know this house? Nathaniel is always scavenging clues about his mother whereabouts from these people but never getting at the truth. Rachel grows more and more angry and elusive over the years, exuding an awareness of their mother’s secret but never confiding in Nathaniel or the reader.
Their “orphaned” lives are filled with intrigue and adventure. The two children wander the dark-side of London in the company of “The Moth” and another frequent visitor, “The Pimlico Darter”, named for his penchant for illegal greyhound racing. When Rachel drifts away, her place in the midnight runs up London’s canals is filled with Nathaniel’s girlfriend, “Agnes”.
Agnes and Nathaniel complement each other. They seek privacy in each other’s company in abandoned building. They believe their escapades are unobserved. Yet. There is always the feeling of being watched. Maybe that was what The Moth meant when he repeatedly told them to be aware… prepare for “schwer”, moments when things get difficult.. prepare for the unknown. “It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”
The Moth, himself, was unprepared for schwer when it arrived.
The Moth had parked in an alley alongside the theater when a man got into the front seat beside him, put a hand behind his head and swung it forward, banging it against the steering wheel then against the door [killing him]..someone else slid in next to Rachel and covered her face with a cloth…. [He] put the same cloth over my face…“The schwer, I’d have thought if I had been conscious.”
A hand touched me in the darkness to pull me awake. “Hello Stitch.”
I recognized my mother’s voice. [Heard her ask someone.] “How did they get so close to my children?”
Before they knew what happened to them, the children were whisked away from their current lives for their safety. They simply disappeared along with their mother. Rose took her children to her childhood home. It is obvious she cared for her children, but she never warmed to the role of “mother”. Rose Williams, known in the dark underworld as “Viola”, hung up her spurs, but not her vigilance. She knew that revenge has no time limits. She knew she faced a day of reckoning. And one day, it arrived.
Nathaniel, jumping his story to 1959, sits down in the secretive intelligence archives. He hopes to learn why his mother chose a life of peril and intrigue over her family. He works each newly discovered puzzle piece into a jigsaw puzzle of Rose’s life. The final picture shows there are missing pieces that died with Rose; not enough is revealed to give Nathaniel the closure I think he deserved. Schwer.
If you enjoy a book with code names and buried secrets, this book is for you.