Having read The English Patient many years ago, I approached Ondaatje’s Warlight with an expectation of escapism, but not in the sense of escaping to mysterious places or futuristic backdrops. Quite the opposite. Warlight is set during the second world war and in the decade or so following it, periods of time much exploited by writers. Living in England, I’ve seen so many war films, series and documentaries on British television, it seems to be one of my remembered past lives. With this familiarity, I was gripped in the world of home front secret services and their accomplices drawn from some of the seedier elements of society.
This comfortable escapism also came about as it is set mostly in Suffolk, a county which shares part of its border with Cambridgeshire, where I live, and extends on to the North Sea coast. The villages and the coastline even today hold a feeling of remoteness embedded in the past. During the war, this coastal area was under constant fear of attack by the Germans, and while they were being secretly patrol by residents, the road signs had been removed in order to confuse any invading forces. I cannot imagine the sense of solidarity it must have brought to the local population, a shared purpose which the UK, even in the time of Covid-19 is lacking. While neighbours and friends are helping each other, the constant controversy over the easing and re-establishing of lockdown and the inconsistent messaging have stripped away any national unity. Perhaps Britain in the time of Warlight has filled a void for this reader.
The narrator in this story, Nathaniel, was 14-years old at the time his parents left him and his sister so that they could continue their work for the British government in Singapore. It is through his perspective that we experience these years and the emotions of being left in the care of their domestic servant and his group of criminal associates. Their activities appear to be in one line of work, but Nathaniel discovers later they were something else altogether, involving the defence of the home front. When his mother reappears, he is on the verge of becoming a young man and she is unwilling to reveal what she was doing for the government or the circumstances surrounding her now estranged husband. With some difficulty and amateur detective work, Nathaniel puts together some of the pieces of his mother’s life with what he has learned about the other characters.
Ondaatje gives his narrator the means to reflect on his ability to create these stories. He explains to the reader, ‘I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth. In retrospect the grains of sand had always been there.’
A great deal has been written in linguistics about how we create and present stories, both fictional and real. Reading this book, I was reminded of these constructs and the power of stories in our personal lives. They are not just about communicating ideas or entertaining a listener or reader. As Nathaniel explains, ‘We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken.’ For a casual summer read, this was escapism, but for this linguist, Warlight proved to be much more.