by Jean Roberta
Michael Ondaatje is an award-winning novelist who seems fascinated by the details of history which are often hidden or forgotten. His own life reads like a novel: he was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1943 of Dutch, Tamil, and Sinhalese ancestry to parents who split up soon afterward, and left him with relatives. At age 11, he was sent to join his mother in England. As a young man, he emigrated to Canada, and never left. He has won numerous awards for his historical fiction, including The English Patient, which was made into a highly-praised movie.
Canadian references to Ondaatje usually define him as a Canadian writer and academic.
Warlight, his most recent novel, probably draws on some of the events of his own childhood. It is told from the viewpoint of Nathaniel Williams, a 14-year-old boy with an older sister, Rachel. During the Second World War, Nathaniel and Rachel are moved out of London for safety, then they are told that their parents have to go to Singapore and live there for a year, for unspecified reasons. Their mother packs a trunk while assuring her children that she will come back on schedule. The parents leave separately, and the teenagers are left in care of a man they call “the Moth,” who introduces them to his friend, a boxer called “the Darter.”
Actually, the children are sent away to separate schools where they aren’t happy. Knowing that their parents are too far away to help, the children escape and return to the family home where the “Moth,” “the Darter,” and other Dickensian characters (including Olive Lawrence, an upscale intellectual who shows up as “the Darter’s” girlfriend) are the only parent-figures available to them. Rachel has alarming seizures (later described as symptoms of epilepsy) that Nathaniel is unable to understand or to help with. She finds their mother’s trunk in the house, and Nathaniel openly asks the “Moth” whether their mother is still alive. “The Moth” says she is, but Nathaniel is unsure what to believe.
The “Moth” tells Nathaniel an anecdote from the boy’s early childhood about his violent, troubled father, who apparently never recovered from the First World War. According to “the Moth,” he was a neighbour of the family, and little Nathaniel ran away to live with him after his father killed Nathaniel’s pet, a beloved cat who liked to “sing.” (The father clearly considered this sound unbearable yowling.) Teenage Nathaniel doesn’t remember any of this, and claims he doesn’t like cats.
The events of Nathaniel’s teenage years give rise to philosophical riffs about the un reliability of memory and the simple explanations that adults give to children to disguise morally-ambiguous reality.
All through the first half of the novel, I was afraid that the mysteries would never be resolved, though Nathaniel’s work in a restaurant (arranged by “the Moth”) and his involvement in “the Darter’s” greyhound-racing scam are exciting in themselves. Nathaniel even acquires a girlfriend in the restaurant, and the two of them have romantic trysts in empty houses where they can be alone. On one occasion, they keep a pack of restless greyhounds with them overnight, hoping the barking won’t lead to their discovery. Animal sounds are clearly dangerous.
Whether Nathaniel’s actual father is in Singapore or not, he never returns. Their mother Rose, however, is shown to have been near her children all along, and her own shadowy career is the stuff of legend. She has a reason for remaining hidden, and the children’s adult caretakers are her colleagues.
Eventually, every loose end is tied up. By the last scene of the novel, Nathaniel is a grown man living in his mother’s childhood home in Sussex. He has learned the truth, but it hasn’t set him free. His mother, his sister, his girlfriend, “the Moth,” and “the Darter” are all permanently gone from his life for reasons that seem inevitable.
This novel is full of local colour and suspense. It reveals the ugly fact that wars don’t really end when one side is declared the winner, since reprisals continue for years afterward. The revelations that shed light on Nathaniel’s teenage years are dramatic but plausible.
Unfortunately, I can’t imagine most of my first-year students enjoying this novel as much as I did, so I decided not to choose it as a textbook.
I chose The Marrow Thieves, a 2017 novel by Cherie Dimaline, a Metis author (of mixed indigenous and French ancestry) in a future Canada which has largely been destroyed by climate change. Most of the institutions of urban society have broken down. A sign of the collective trauma is the general inability to dream, from which indigenous people seem to be immune. Their life-saving physical and spiritual ability to enter different narratives in sleep is thought to be located in their bone-marrow. Of course, those in power want to capture the dreamers and extract their marrow in a liquid form, thereby killing them on operating tables in institutions described as “schools.”
The biology of all this is sketchy, but it’s not the point. Throughout the novel, a makeshift “family” of survivors must camp out on the run, developing traditional survival skills while protecting the oldest and the youngest among them from the “Recruiters” who try to capture them. The action is shown from the viewpoint of “Frenchie” (Francis), a teenage boy who comes of age while learning words in indigenous languages, developing hunting skills, and falling in love with Rose, another teenage survivor. The de facto leader of the groups turns out to be a gay man who quietly grieves the disappearance of his “husband” while encouraging everyone else in the group to tell their “coming-to” stories.
I can already hear the complaints from my first-year students:
This novel is racist against white people,
It is based on an unbelievable plot-premise, and
A major character is sexually perverse.
However, there is no way to please everyone. I think most students who graduated from an English-language secondary school could understand the author’s straightforward writing style, and I like several of the messages in the novel. There might be a recent novel that I would like better, but I needed to make a decision and go on to do other things.
As some of you probably know, I write reviews for The Gay and Lesbian Review, based on lists of recent publications sent by the editor to a stable of reviewers. I chose the ironically-named So Lucky by Nicola Griffith (ex-pat British lesbian fiction-writer living in the U.S. with her partner, also a writer).
Not for the first time, the editor told me he didn’t actually have the novel on hand, so he asked me to order it from Amazon, promising that the Review will pay me back. (I hope so. I get paid for my reviews in subscriptions.)
Luckily, the novel is slim and concisely written. So far, it shows what happens to a successful woman when her wife leaves her, her best friend announces her departure for New Zealand, and she receives a devastating medical diagnosis. This is not easy reading for any person of a Certain Age, though the central character is actually much younger than I am now. I’m comforting myself with the thought that at least I live in a country that believes in universal health care.