Rachel and Nathaniel were still teenagers when immediately after WW II their parents packed to leave the country. The kids were supposed to attend boarding school after summer break, but only a few days after the school had begun again, they left and went completely to live with a man they named „The Moth“ who was supposed to be their caretaker while the parents were away. Even though they at first felt left behind, it was a time of freedom and carelessness, the house often full of interesting and mysterious people and both, Nathaniel and Rachel, became somehow used to the situation. When their mother suddenly showed up again, they understood that things were not what they had thought them to be. It was only after their mother’s death, when Nathaniel is approached by special operations, that he gains insight in who his mother had actually been.
“Warlight” – during the time of the second world war, when there were frequent blackouts in London, there was only the so called “Warlight”, dimmed lights to guide emergency traffic, the rest was covered in black and you could only sense movements in the shadow but not see them. This is the perfect title for Michael Ondaatje’s novel: a lot of what happens remains somewhere in the dark for the protagonist to see. He can only assume things from the quick glances he is granted, but he cannot be sure if his hypotheses are correct. It also represents quite well the atmosphere which is always a bit gloomy and melancholy and certainly never joyful.
At the beginning of the novel, the reader just as the protagonist and narrator is quite irritated by the parents’ behaviour. They leave the country, neither telling their children where exactly they are headed too or why after all they have to leave. The teenagers stay with people they hardly know and not to forget: the war has just ended and the memories of the bombings are still fresh. How could ever parents do such a thing? It becomes even more infuriating when they find their mother’s luggage which she obviously didn’t take with her. It takes some time to figure out the mother’s real role and thus to understand her behaviour. This is also when the novel becomes the most interesting.
This is also where Michael Ondaatje’s virtuosity becomes evident: none of the characters, no matter how random he or she seemed, was introduced without a reason and they all have their specific role in the novel. It all makes sense and culminates in much greater questions than the nucleus of a single family we are presented with at first can ever offer: how far would you go for your country? What are you willing to sacrifice? And it clearly shows that the two categories of “good” and “bad” are simply inadequate for the world we are living in.