In the first part of the novel, Nathaniel, 14, and Rachel, 16, are left in post-war London “in the care of two men who may have been criminals” (5) when their parents announce they are going to Singapore for a year. As a result, the teens grow up with a household lodger (whom they nickname The Moth) as their official guardian, though other adults appear in the house as well: an ethnographer; a former boxer turned racing greyhound smuggler; a tall, skeletal man who tells Nathaniel, “’Your mother is away. Doing something important. . . . Your mother’s all right. Just be careful’” (104).
Part II is set in 1959 when Nathaniel, 28, decides to solve the riddle that was his mother Rose. Since it seems she did not go to Singapore, where did she go? What about her other disappearances? How did she get the scars on her arms? As Nathaniel reviews what happened in his and his mother’s pasts, some of what happened in the first part begins to make more sense.
The book examines how people are shaped by their pasts: “What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here” (274). Being abandoned by his parents, Nathaniel feels insecure and constantly yearns for safety. He mentions, “If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on an hourly basis” (169). He constantly draws maps to give his life order amidst chaos: “as a boy in London I was obsessively drawing maps of our neighbourhood in order to feel secure” (137). As an adult, he buys a house with a walled garden which gives him a “sense of safety” (126).
Rachel argues that she and Nathaniel were harmed by their mother’s neglect of them: “’We were damaged, Nathaniel. Recognize that’” (151). Scars are used to symbolize the marks left by the past: Rose has scars on her arms; Arthur McCash has slash marks on his abdomen; an interrogator has smallpox marks; Mr. Nkoma has a scar on his cheek, etc. As an adult, Nathaniel worries about the unknown damage he may have done to others: “But who did I hurt to get here? . . . But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do?” (274)
The novel also examines the repercussions of war. It is repeated that “’Wars don’t end. They never remain in the past’” (212) and “’Wars are never over’” (248). Though World War II has ended, Rose and her family continue to be affected by the “questionable decisions of war” (177). Rose admits, “’My sins are various’” (177), so it is not surprising that she is comforted to live in a house with a nightingale floor.
Readers who do not relish ambiguity will feel frustrated because there are no tidy conclusions. At the beginning, Nathaniel mentions having a photo of his mother as a teenager: “This almost anonymous person, balanced awkwardly, holding on to her own safety. Already incognito” (16). In many ways, she remains that way. Through his research, Nathaniel does learn things about his mother, but he also relies on conjecture; in the end, he admits, “All I had, in reality, was no more than a half-finished verse of an old ballad rather than evidence. . . . I could only step into fragments of the story” (229). Memory is unreliable, some people remain silent, and other people deliberately deceive him, so the full truth is not known.
Several techniques are used to enhance the meaning of the novel. There is the non-linear narrative which means the reader shares Nathaniel’s bewilderment as he searches for the “lost sequence” (129) of his life. Of course, the title clearly suggests that much is not illuminated. Warlight refers to the dimmed lights used during wartime blackouts so that much remained obscured. Likewise, Nathaniel seems to be feeling his way through semi-darkness as he tries to unearth the truth. Some mysteries come to light but others remain shrouded in darkness. Even the constant use of nicknames (Wren, The Moth, The Darter, Viola, Agnes Street) suggest a cloak of secrecy, though Stitch, Nathaniel’s nickname, is particularly appropriate since he tries to stitch together his mother’s past.
The lyrical prose, non-linear plotting, and memorable characters make this a trademark Ondaatje novel. There is also the typical development of theme found in the works of this author in which even the tiniest of details is significant. Just like the placement of a sprig of rosemary in a jacket pocket and the listening to a naturalist’s radio program are significant in the novel, every word and image are relevant in the book. It is a book that deserves re-reading.