War stories, it’s often said, inevitably romanticize conflict. Michael Ondaatje would know: The Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer enjoyed his greatest success with his 1992 novel, “The English Patient,” which tucked an affair amid its World War II setting. Conceptually it seemed ungainly, but Ondaatje writes the kind of seductive sentences that make such discordances feel utterly sensible.
In his seventh novel, “Warlight,” Ondaatje chases a similar effect: It’s a tender coming-of-age story so warmly delivered you almost forget how much of its plot involves smuggling, spycraft and assassins. Its narrator, Nathaniel, is 14 years old at the end of World War II, and he and his epileptic older sister, Rachel, have been effectively abandoned in London by their mom and dad, who have a vague role in British intelligence. Enter two proxy parents who are more muscle than loving kindness: a cryptic figure nicknamed the Moth, and another man named the Darter, who ropes Nathaniel into helping him illegally ferry racing greyhounds on the Thames.
Like a Dickensian waif with better peerage, Nathaniel becomes an expert in the city’s underbelly, but resentful of his neglectful mom. “Did she really assume that the shell of our world would not crack?” he wonders. So when she does suddenly return, after a violent incident that threatened Nathaniel and Rachel, the novel becomes at once a mystery tale and an exploration into how much of our lives are out of our control, especially in wartime.
The pleasure of spy novels is their suggestion that smarter and savvier figures are protecting our lives. Ondaatje tweaks the notion, considering Nathaniel’s life in the context of spies falling down on the job. Much of the latter half of the book involves him working for intelligence himself and researching his mom to piece together “that missing sequence in her life.” His investigations lead him to a tale involving his mother, a man with the unsurpassably Dickensian name of Marsh Felon, and a sense that for some people, secrecy is an addiction, an endless desire for an “unknown and unspoken world.”
You want to resist the gentle, golden-hour glow that Ondaatje gives Nathaniel’s character as he reminisces — he’s been neglected, manipulated and put in harm’s way. But Ondaatje gets to have it both ways: His elegant prose is a pleasure in its own right and a scrim that Nathaniel layers over his own story, protecting himself against how abandoned he’s been. A love of secrets, for better or for worse, is his inheritance.
Entering the world of spies and crime, he writes, “I felt I was a caterpillar changing colour, precariously balanced, moving from one species of leaf to another.” It’s a sentence that captures the beauty of the book, and its fragile mood.
Mark Athitakis is a Phoenix-based writer and past board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Michael Ondaatje.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 285 pages, $26.95.
Event: In conversation with Louise Erdrich, 7 p.m. May 21, Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.