by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight is a story about a young teen’s formative years in England immediately after WWII, but it’s more complicated than that. Our narrator, Nathaniel, looks back to when his parents, sent to Asia for a work position, left his older sister and him in the care of their secretive lodger. They start being exposed to an underworld of smugglers and greyhound race fixers––unusual guardians who teach them important lessons and protect them. The story largely involves Nathaniel attempting to piece together connections between his criminal role-models and the hidden world of the British war effort, along with its link to the volatile post-war Europe demarcated by lines of vengeance drawn thickly along ethnic and ideological boundaries.

Ondaatje has vision, and it’s amazing that he hasn’t lost it in the years from In the Skin of a Lion. He has such a great understanding of what he wants to present and he has the experience to know how to do so effectively, usually on the backs of his characters. And, seriously, if you want to understand characterization, study Ondaatje’s work. He sharply delineates his personalities mainly by filtering observations of fine quirks through the eyes of others. By focusing on specific details that stand out as such––and by describing them in an active way––we get the impression that we’re only capturing a short glimpse of real lives of real people. I believe much of the success achieved here has to do with the author’s rare gift of expression, where he has a great understanding of what needs to be focused on in order to actually take us to a moment vividly.

One aspect of Warlight that at least to some extent confounded my previous understanding of writing was the plot twist that presents itself partway through the book. I’ve long held the belief that a satisfying reveal is one that feels natural, and Ondaatje’s book hasn’t changed this thought, though it has changed how I feel you achieve this. I previously theorized that the trick involved striking a fine balance between revealing enough information to allow the reader to figure it out, but not enough to make it easy. In Warlight, however, I don’t think any reader could reasonably have figured it out before it was explained, yet it was still satisfying to me. I think the trick in this case was that we were shown small pieces of the truth but were strongly led in the wrong direction by the narrator’s actions and preconceptions. As a result, we were in the same place as the narrator who had no idea what was actually happening, and it didn’t feel like the author was actively hiding information from us.

So, I really think Warlight is something special that any serious writer can learn from. Not only does the author showcase effective writing techniques, but he also uses them to strengthen a mature story. Warlight ultimately is a thoughtful exploration of the things that frame our understandings of those around us and the things that shatter those preconceptions, alongside a discussion of the indelible marks that war campaigns and their reprisals have on the innocent.