Whenever a new Ondaatje comes out, my husband, Hugh, gets it for me as a surprise – often a signed first edition, which feels extra thrilling. It harks back to our early courting days: we’d been going out for a month when, in early October, my thirtieth birthday came round. In the kitchen of the home where he lived, on his own, he handed me two very special copies of my favourite novel, The English Patient: one was a signed first edition, the other a corrected proof – with pencil markings by Ondaatje himself. You can see these in the photograph, to which I’ve added two more recent editions from which I’ve taught at high school level and the wonderful screenplay of the film by the late Anthony Minghella.
I have a soft spot for poets turned novelists: their prose goes deeper and rings truer for them having spent years crafting poems.
One of my favourite contemporary poet turned writers is Jon McGregor (no relation). Ondaatje’s writing is a balm for those of us whose nerve endings tingle when we read a beautifully crafted sentence. He appeals to the English teacher in me and to the artist. I fear he is something of a ‘writers’ writer’: dear friends and family, to whom I have recommended Ondaatje’s novels, have struggled with his style. He does not offer simple character-plot novels. His stories are layered and circular and sometimes oblique – but always beautiful.
I went on a writer’s workshop with the Arvon Foundation when I was in my early twenties and, interestingly, the poetry teacher on the course, set us the exercise of writing down the five things that obsess us in life: themes, motifs, relationships – anything really. She said that we should look back at that list as we develop as writers and that we’ll be surprised at how often we come back to the same themes – that somehow, we are haunted, over and over, by the ideas that first preoccupy us. I know this has been true in my own writing. I can’t seem to get away from the theme of motherhood and the sea and water tends to come up over and over again. The same is true of Ondaatje too. They are themes and motifs that draw me to him.
Perhaps it is our affinity with a writer’s particular obsessions that pulls us back to them time and again.
Warlight, is, I feel, the closest in style and content to The English Patient. It explores the nature of memory: its beauty and unreliability and the truth found in its deceptions. He digs deep into the intimate coming together of strangers and exposes how close and how far we all are from one another. He creates symbols out of his characters: ‘The Moth’, ‘The Darter,’ suggesting that whilst we are all complex and, in some ways, unfathomable, we nevertheless play specific roles; we revert to types – or others categorise us into these types.
As in The English Patient, Warlight explores how people and relationships are fundamentally altered at times of war. That we love and live and act differently in these heightened times. Mothers abandon their children. Young men fall in love with strange girls who disappear from their lives as mysteriously as they arrived. We act in ways that betray not only others but ourselves. I’m about to write a historical novel about my grandparents who lived in Berlin at the time of the second world war, so these ideas are particularly resonant.
Another motif which runs through Ondaatje’s novels – and indeed his poems – is his love of maps and cartography. One of my favourite passages in all fiction comes towards the end of The English Patient, where he explores how arbitrary the boundaries are that we erect between us – but also how human it is to draw these lines: our desire to map the world goes deep. It’s a theme that speaks to our times – to my times, in particular: an English immigrant living in the USA with a president who, in the run up to the 2016 election, at least, promised to build a wall along the entire 2,00o-mile length of the US-Mexico border. Since taking office, reality has kicked in and it looks like the wall might be a little more modest, but the aspiration is there all the same: to erect a division between human beings.
In The English Patient, Ondaatje explored the nature of charting the shifting sands of the desert and the shifting borders in Europe at the time of the second world war. In Warlight, also set in the second world war, he turns to a more intimate cartography – the city of London and the networks of rivers that criss cross the capital.
Connected to this interest in cartography is one of Ondaatje’s greatest gifts as writer: his ability to evoke place; to give the locations in his novels a spirit and character, all of their own. The city – and the waterways – at night, which seem to mirror the criminal activity of those awake and working at that time. And then the beautiful countryside: old houses, nature, places where people find their old selves again. Each place is infused by the people who have dwelt there and dwell there now. I love this notion. That whenever we set foot somewhere – a field, a pavement, an old house, a school, a hospital, a river – we bind ourselves to those who have gone before us and we also leave a mark all of our own.
As you can see from the nature of this review, it’s difficult to pin down the plot of an Ondaatje novel though, I suppose that if I were pressed, I would say that Warlight is about a young man’s journey, through the war, back to his mother and then to himself. Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are abandoned by their parents as children. Only as adults do they come to understand why they were left in the hands of strangers and who their parents – in particular their mother – truly were. The ultimate knowability of our parents is a metaphor which is richly woven in the relationship between Nathaniel and his mother, Rose.
Ondaatje (perhaps because he is a poet) is infinitely quotable. Here are a few of my favourite from Warlight, all of which expose some of his wonderful obsessions: the distance within families; how the human body relates to the natural landscape; the relationship between the past and the present; the contradictions in us all – how a murderer might weep at the passing of a bird; the power of naming or labelling a person or thing. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
“Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises.”
“There were all these landscapes within her. She could read the noise of forests, she had timed the rhythm of the tidal slop along the embankment at Battersea Bridge.”
“I was about to enter a borderless terrain between adolescence and adulthood.”
“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.”
“A swallow knocked dead or unconscious from hating a window silenced him for half a day. It remained with him, that bird’s world, its fate. If I said something later that encroached not eh event, I’d see a shadow in him. He would turn from our conversation and I’d have lost him, find myself suddenly alone, even if he was beside me, driving his truck. He always knew the layered grief of the world as well as it pleasures.”
“How conscious of us had our mother been when we were unconscious of her?””
“Even with her adult friends my mother enjoyed searching out better names than the ones they had been baptised with. She had plundered names from landscapes, called people by place-names of where they’d been born or even where she first met them.”
“The boy began reading every evening. It allowed him a deafness while his brothers talked.”
“He always liked and trusted how she listened, even when younger, her head lifted, watching his mouth. Dogs did that.”
“He knows nothing about her adult life, that she was, for instance, hesitant and shy longer than was perhaps usual, till she stepped towards what she desired with a determination from which none could prise her away – a habit she will always have, that pattern of hesitancy at first and then complete involvement…”
“The brilliant are often destructive.”
“Everyone has their own marriages, she thinks.”
“He has, as someone once said, “those strangely inattentive eyes that miss nothing.””
“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…”