Book Review: Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight

WarlightWarlight by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked Ondaatje’s In The Skin of a Lion so much that it sort of become part of my identity: an aspiring writer who liked Ondaatje, his showy, poetic descriptions and unforgettable characters, and odd, affecting scenarios. But as an adult, my reviews have been more mixed. I quite liked Cat’s Table. For some reason, Anil’s Ghost didn’t grab me. Divisadero: liked.

Unfortunately, Warlight isn’t one of my favourites, and it is perhaps because it feels so familiar. A story from wartime. Mysterious characters with nicknames, the Gatherer, the Felon, the Moth. Displays of unusual talents or knowledge. The keeping and withholding of information (and perhaps, inevitable admissions) Even the cadence of the writing seems too familiar: somewhat dramatic and overwrought. “Where were we going? Into another life”, he ends Part One. I can see myself at twenty finding that kind of writing and phrases dreamy, compact and romantic, yet now, nearly fifty, a little trite.

I dog-eared a page where one character is telling another a story, in detail, of a chess match played in an opera house, during an opera. The narrative is filled with obscure details and anecdotes like this one; so I supposed it all depends how much you are charmed by these diversions. And perhaps how you immerse yourself in the story. With Ondaatje’s books, I find I can be pulled in by more interest in the setting or narrator; in this case, spying and espionage in wartime Britain wasn’t an automatic in for me, and the narrator I found somewhat cold. In fact, I can’t think how I’d describe him. The details around him, and his search to know his mother better seemed to be more important.

The reviews of Warlight in mainstream media have been rave and one of my friends, an Ondaatje, loved it. I think if I were a reader new to him, I would have found this book interesting enough, rather than tainted by disappointment. But at the same time, the overall ambiance of the book, its colouring and light (or lack of light) stayed with me afterwards, so perhaps I liked it more than I cared to admit.

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