Childhood plays a central role in Warlight, Michael Ondaatje's dark, absorbing postwar drama set in 1945 London. Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are left behind in London when their parents move to Singapore for work. The children are provided no context or further explanation for their parents' departure. Eventually their mother, Rose, returns as suddenly as she left. Their war-damaged father, always on the periphery of his children's lives, remains a distant figure. As an adult struggling to reconcile what was basically his abandonment, Nathaniel attempts to understand Rose's mysterious past and the impact of her absence on his formative years.
Nathaniel and Rachel's life on their own forms the first part of the book. The teens crave security and the truth about their parents' whereabouts, but they find neither in the series of guardians with whom they often feel unsafe. Their childhood insecurity manifests in the paths they take as adults, each fleeing the demons of their imploded family. Warlight is rich with diversions, subplots involving the various adults entering and exiting the children's lives in revolving-door fashion.
Warlight's emotionally heftier second half chronicles the siblings' unsettled lives after Rose's abrupt return. Her secrecy and deception gnaw at Nathaniel. It's impossible not to be lured into his memory-soaked rumination on the fragility of family and the central role, or lack, of mothers in constructing a child's inner life. Nathaniel longs for some measure of closure, something concrete about Rose's role in postwar intelligence work. Ondaatje (The Cat's Table), however, is not interested in a neat and comforting finale. For the reader and Nathaniel alike, the satisfaction of closure remains elusive. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer