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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 27 November 2020

"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje

This is a strangely constructed book. The first half is a more or less chronologically straightforward account of the experiences of a fourteen year-old boy, left with his sister in the care of the lodger while his mother and father are supposedly in Singapore. The lodger has some strange acquaintances and young Nathaniel frequently skips school, has a number of part-time jobs, has sex in a series of empty houses with his first girlfriend, and gets involved in the fringes of criminality with The Darter. The second half jumps back and forwards in time as Nathaniel, now in his late twenties, tries to reconstruct his mother's wartime and post-wartime experiences in an attempt to understand why she abandoned her children.

I found the first half much more satisfying than the second. The second half seemed fragmentary. The character on Marsh Felon, while flagged up in the first half, seemed improbable but more to the point poorly integrated within the narrative. There were a number of mysteries that were never satisfactorily resolved, such as why Nathaniel made such an effort to track down the past of his mother but no effort to find out anything about his almost equally elusive father. And why were the children of what seemed to be such an eminent businessman so neglected and allowed to roam free? The first half really didn't reconcile with the second half.

But full marks for verisimilitude; it read just like a memoir. The author was two at the time the narrative starts.

And there is a wonderful, hooking first line: "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals."

There were some other memorable moments:
  • "Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises." (1, A Table Full of Strangers)
  • "Rachel and I crouched on the carpet working on a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together sections of a blue sky." This is a nice metaphor. (1, A Table Full of Strangers)
  • "Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning “difficult”. “Heavy”. We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "Picasso as a youth, I’m told, painted only in candlelight, to admit the altering movement of shadows." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "I rustle awake a lover from my teenage years." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "with time the Fleet ended its life as a path for sewage. And when even those underground sewers dried up, their grand Wren-like vaulted ceilings and arcades became illegal meeting places beneath the city where people would gather during the night, in the no-longer-damp path of its stream." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "a queue of dust-covered saints, some with arrows in their armpits, courteously lined up, as if waiting to register." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "one of those half-hour comedies where the humour depended almost totally on the repetition of stock phrases." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "Everything the ex-boxer did was at a precarious tilt, about to come loose." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • “'Half the life of cities occurs at night,' Olive Lawrence warned us. 'There’s a more uncertain morality then'." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "In youth we are not so much embarrassed by the reality of our situation as fearful others might discover and judge it." (1, Agnes Street)
  • "These were parts of the city that since the war were only partially lived in. We passed streets of rubble, now and then a bonfire." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "When I woke, a dog’s thin sleeping face was beside me, breathing calmly into mine, busy with its dreams. It heard the change in my waking breath and opened its eyes. Then shifted position and placed its paw on my forehead gently, either as a gesture of careful compassion or superiority." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "how do we survive that forty miles of bad terrain during adolescence that we crossed without any truthful awareness of ourselves?" (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "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." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "she had cleared her schedule to come and watch me dance, chaotic and Dionysian, at a Bromley jazz club with a girl she did not know, who leapt into and out of my arms." (2, Inheritance)
  • "When you attempt a memoir, I am told, you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you, and the things you have grown cautious and hesitant about, will come almost casually towards you." (2, The Saints)
  • "She was organised, ardently neat, whereas he was the rabbit’s wild brother, leaving what looked like the path of an undressing hurricane wherever he went."  (2, The Saints)
  • "He always knew the layered grief of the world as well as its pleasures."  (2, The Saints)
  • You need to know not just how to enter a battle zone but how to get out of it. Wars don’t end. They never remain in the past." (2, Wildfowling)
  • Historical studies inevitably omit the place of the accidental in life,” (2, The Astral Plough)
  • "Felon stands beside a gathering of marble scholars and philosophers, turning quickly as if he might catch a look or a thought in them. He loves the permanent judgement on the faces of statues, their clear weakness or deviousness." (2, The Street of Small Daggers)
  • "We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change. We learn, we evolve. What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here." (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth."  (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "They were in a busy life, where each farthing mattered, where every tube of toothpaste was bought at a specific price."  (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "We order our lives with barely held stories."  (2, A Walled Garden)

Two points of personal interest. First, part of the mother's wartime experience is in Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire which was a radio listening post in WWII. Years later, when it was a USAF Air Base, I spent a night ghost hunting in the Priory. As I drove up there was a thunder storm, as if the heavens were greeting me in classic B -movie style. When the storm abated a fireman from the air base came to check that the fire alarm systems in the old Priory (a listed building) were in order. No one had told him about the ghost watchers and when I opened the door to greet him he had the scare of his life. I have never seen a big burly American fireman so frightened. We spent the whole night watching although the ghost was supposed to roam the building between midnight and two AM. At almost exactly one AM the dog whop was with us howled horribly. Apart from that, nothing.

The second is that a place in Naples called Posillipo (meaning 'break from sorrow') is mentioned; this is the name of a restaurant in Canterbury where I now live.

An uneven narrative but there are some moments of beauty. November 2020; 

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

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