An unusual take on WWII espionage

WarlightWarlight by Michael Ondaatje

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A beautifully-written historical novel, from start to finish. For someone who likes to write, such as me, the use of language is inspirational. Delightful and succinct descriptions abound, e.g. ‘we moved under a panoply of passing trees’ (p111). However, the unconventional structure and rapidly-changing point-of-view characters, particularly toward the end, makes the story a little hard to follow at times.

Most intriguing is the theme of secrecy, of not knowing the true nature of a person or their motives. This is introduced in the very first sentence. ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.’ What a literary hook!

I enjoyed the use of perfectly-chosen nicknames (‘The Moth’ and ‘The Darter’), code names, and the sprinkling of tiny hints about secret activities throughout the narrative. Only in the last chapters are we able to ‘Stitch’ together the significance of various odd events and the interaction of several dubious characters who appear and disappear throughout Nathaniel’s young life, not the least being his mother. The final twist is unexpected but plausible.

In the last paragraphs the author draws an apt and satisfying conclusion. ‘We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken … sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete, ignored like the sea pea on those mined beaches during the war.’

A thoughtful and unusual perspective on WWII espionage.

View all my reviews

About Debbie Terranova

Debbie Terranova is an Australian author of contemporary and historical fiction. In 2018-19, armed with a QANZAC 100 Fellowship with the State Library of Queensland, Debbie completed a 12-month research project entitled "Queensland Women and War". Prior to this she published three novels and several short stories. 'Enemies within these Shores' (2018) is based on a shocking true story which saw the detention of thousands of civilians in Australia during WWII. 'The Scarlet Key' (2016) and 'Baby Farm' (2014) are crime mysteries set in Brisbane, Australia. 'The Scarlet Key' has underlying themes of growing older outrageously and seizing control of your destiny. 'Baby Farm' reveals the shabby treatment of young unmarried mothers in the 1970s in a crime mystery that plays out forty years hence.
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