book review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje


WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 2018


You know those moments when you find an author you think you’re going to like, but you chose the wrong book of theirs to start with? That’s what happened with Warlight. This was not a good book, but I don’t think it’s over between me and Ondaatje. More on that in a minute.

Warlight was almost unbearably boring. I’m sorry, I know that ‘boring’ is the kind of pedestrian critique that we try to stay away from while reviewing, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that felt this utterly pointless. There’s no conflict, no character development, no intrigue, no payoff. This book meandered through the narrator’s recollections of his youth in post-war London, halting all too briefly on defining moments, claiming to imbue them with weight but never willing to properly examine them in any kind of broader context. The nonlinear chronology could have been used effectively, but it served only to create such a distance between present-day-Nathaniel and past-Nathaniel that the chapters about his childhood lacked any sort of spark or passion or urgency. The one question that Ondaatje never seems interested in answering is why the reader should care about any of it.

The one saving grace for me was the prose. Ondaatje’s writing struck me as both elegant and effortless. There is no question that this book is well-written, and I found myself pausing at certain sentences, impressed by their construction and insight:

You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.

But despite these flickers of profundity in the sentence-by-sentence writing, there isn’t a whole lot of emotional depth to this novel on the whole. For a novel purportedly about memory and perception and unearthing the truth, far too much remains unexhumed. The whole thing is bizarrely perfunctory and passionless, and there is no doubt in my mind that Warlight‘s inclusion on the Booker longlist is an homage to Ondaatje’s illustrious career more than a reflection of the quality of this particular novel. But, again, I’m willing to read more Ondaatje in the future, as I refuse to believe this is the height of what he’s capable of.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman | Everything Under
In Our Mad and Furious City


36 thoughts on “book review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

  1. Nice review, I appreciate the specificity of your criticism and praise. I’ve only read one of his works a long time ago, but I think I had similar feelings about it. There were definitely beautiful and artful sentences and phrases and paragraphs, but taken as a whole something was missing for me. I’m not planning on revisiting him unless he publishes something new everyone else seems to love, but glad I gave him a shot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jenn! Do you remember which of his books you’ve read? I feel like I should read The English Patient since it’s the thing to do, but I’ve heard mixed things… I’m really determined to find one of his books that I love, because I did find a lot of potential in Warlight, it was just never quite realized for me.


  2. Well said. The writing itself was so accomplished that I kept waiting for the story to catch up, but even though there were a few small moments here and there that I appreciated it never came fully together for me, either. I’m definitely hoping for better luck with The English Patient; I hope the plot will be able to keep up with the prose in that one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, exactly! There was so much wasted potential. I really do want to read The English Patient at some point – I’ve heard mixed things and that it’s quite slow, but I can handle slow if there’s more payoff than there was in this book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! I am a bit glad to have decided against reading the longlist because this sounds like something that would bore me to tears. (and for me, boring often really IS a big factor in how I rate a book)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel like sometimes we bend over backward not to use the word ‘boring’ in reviews, which is stupidly pretentious, so I decided to just go for it. This book was insanely, stupidly boring. If it makes the shortlist I am going to be VERY disappointed. At first I had it on my shortlist predictions list just because of the author, but after reading it I refuse to accept that famous author is a good enough reason to shortlist it over much more accomplished books that happen to be by more inexperienced writers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think it’s because boring is so subjective. But then again, I am not even trying to be super objective with my reviews anyway.
        I am SO looking forward to the shortlist announcement. The only one I’d be cross to not make it would be Everything Under.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Very true. I think the key to writing a good review is being able to differentiate objective from subjective criticism, and boring is one of those words that kind of toes the line.

        I am SO excited for the announcement!


  4. Halfway through now, and while the prose has grown on me, the story has not. I suspect my review will be similar. Trying to power through before I (possibly) start Anna Karenina in case Tolstoy #2 is as much of An Experience as War & Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

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