Warlight by Michael Ondaatje “We order our lives with barely held stories.” (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list)

If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on an hourly basis.  You do not concern yourself with what you must or should remember about them. You are on your own. So it took me a long time to rely on the past, and reconstruct how to interpret it. (p. 169)

Rachel and Nathaniel are left in the care of The Moth, a friend of their parents. They believe their mother and father have gone off to Singapore for a year, but they realize there must be different circumstances when Rachel finds their mother’s trunk in the basement the winter after they left.

The Moth, and his friend The Plimico Darter, make strange caretakers for these siblings. The Moth can disappear for days, yet he reassures them that they are perfectly safe as The Darter has driven by their home to check on them in the night. The Darter has odd girlfriends who come and go, one in particular is seemingly more friendly with Rachel and Nathaniel than she is to him. Why would parents leave their children to these two? Why would the mother leave her trunk behind after packing it so carefully? Where are these parents, exactly?

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Warlight, examines memory. Abandonment. Family ties. It draws me more deeply in with every page I turn, curious as to the whereabouts of the parents and the survival of the children who are left to grow up on their own.

It is not without resentment that they rear themselves, surrounded by strangers who care to some degree or another about their well-being, but certainly can never replace one’s parents. Or, more particularly, one’s mother. Rachel suffers from terrible epileptic seizures, and who is there to help her? Walter, The Moth. She grows so hateful toward her mother that their relationship becomes irreparable.

But, Nathaniel sits with her when he is 18 and she is 40, playing a game of chess, learning about what it was like for his mother when she was in the Service of the British Army during WWII. They both had to learn how to manage when life was schwer, a German word meaning “hard”, although in entirely different ways.

If a wound is great you cannot turn it into something that is spoken, it can barely be written. (p. 275)

Ondaatje’s novel unfolds as a grown-up Nathaniel searches out his mother’s past, uncovering what she has done, whom she has been with, and why she felt she could leave them. It’s a sad book, reflecting on a mother’s life which did not include much love for her children. And while it is potentially powerful, I’m rather disappointed as I close the last page, feeling that there should have been so much more. At least for Nathaniel and Rachel.