WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje
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: