Monthly Archives: February 2020

Reading Through the Fog of Ondaatje’s “Warlight”

Recently I shared a comic on Instagram about how sometimes hating a book becomes an absolute defining character trait—it’s irrational, I know, but it can’t be helped. I’d referred to Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” and the ‘Red Rising Saga‘ as that book/series that I just hate despite everyone else I know absolutely loving it.
In the comments Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” was mentioned as one of those books that’s overrated. I haven’t read it, although I saw the movie and recall being fairly disappointed, but the exchange reminded me of Ondaatje’s new book, “Warlight”.

Warlight Michael Ondaatje

“In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself–,” the publisher writes, “at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire.”

The only mysterious thing about this narrative is how anyone could actually describe it in this way.

I started writing down my impressions of the book about a quarter of the way through it and by that point the most interesting part of the novel had been the brief paragraph offering a history of the lost rivers of London. This was only because it reminded me I need to get caught up on Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London series.

‘Warlight’ is one of those meandering, kind of plotless, novel by anecdote—a fictional memoir that reminds me of John Banville’s “Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir”, in which there’s less linear journey of story and more loosely guided walk through the narrative grocery store; grabbing certain stories, memories, ideas, backtracking occasionally to pick up another item, another character or experience for a meal that you’re trying to prepare for without actually having the recipe to guide you.

There are so many great stories hinted at in this book, but none of them are sufficiently expanded upon. The opportunity for intriguing, absurd underworld adventures with fascinating, odd and war-damaged characters is completely wasted with only fleeting mentions of crimes and events. Everything is just out of reach, just beyond the reader’s grasp, as if you’re reading the book trapped in a fog with large portions of it obscured and hidden from you.

Maybe this was intentional, given the story I think is being told—as the reader you are the narrator, and his understanding of his post war life and the wartime actions of his mother specifically, and even her own personal history, are obscured—although for his and his sister’s protection.

But it feels more than that. It feel unfinished and poorly structured, with information inadequately doled out, the sharing of the synopsis-promised mysteries of postwar London unbalanced and lacking. It feels like such a wasted opportunity to create a unique but historically anchored world populated by odd characters existing within the dark fringes of a society that has been so broken by multiple wars it is unsure how to reintegrate it’s fractured, schizophrenic selves.

Instead I’m left needing it to just be over because I’m too far into it to walk away even though I just don’t care….

Follow me on Goodreads to see if I actually manage to finish this book, or to check out what else I’m reading.

📚🎧

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