Back to Book Blogging (again)
While the blog’s been on hiatus I’ve been reading a lot. I went back to Goodreads last year and since then I’ve been posting reviews and joining in conversations about the books I’m reading. But I was recently reminded that Goodreads is Amazon, and I try to minimize my Amazon usage. I don’t let Goodreads use my reviews anywhere else, but since I keep my account somewhat private, you have to be a member to see my account. This seems … contradictory to my professed goals of minimizing my Amazon contributions? Or something
Anyway, it occurred to me that I should just be posting my GR reviews here at my blog. It started as a books blog, after all! So I’ll be posting past and future reviews here, for my tens of readers to read and comment on.
I miss blogs. I don’t miss Twitter much, but I do miss talking about books in a water-cooler fashion, and that seems basically gone, or at least hard for me to find. But I’m reading as much as I ever have. So here we go again. I should note that these aren’t the kind of long, carefully written reviews I used to post at Dear Author. They’re more impressionistic and casual.
Right now I’m buried in reading the Booker longlist. I’ve finished eight of the 13 and I’m halfway through two more. The shortlist announcement comes out on 20 September and I’d like to have them all read by then, but I don’t know if I’ll make it. I’ll come close though, closer than I have in previous years.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
The only other Ondaatje novel I’ve read is The English Patient and that was over 20 years ago, just after it came out. I only picked this up because it’s on the Booker 2018 longlist, and I was skeptical I’d enjoy it, even if I appreciated it. I was so wrong. It was a marvelous reading experience and it demonstrates just how good a novel can be in the hands of a talented and accomplished veteran author. I say veteran because most debut and newer authors just don’t have this level of control over their craft.
The story itself is divided into two halves, both told by the narrator at different points in his life. In the first half Nathaniel is a teenager living in London at the end of WW2. His parents have left him and his sister in the care of a family friend while they go to his father’s new work posting in Asia. Or so the children are told. In fact, it turns out that the parents are elsewhere and they are very much Not What They Seem. The family friend, nicknamed The Moth, is there both to supervise the children and to protect them from harm, and he collects a variety of other unusual and interesting people along the way to help. The most significant of these is The Darter, who does all kinds of vague, murky things including piloting a barge up and down London’s canals, delivering goods.
This part of the story is very much Nathaniel’s coming-of-age tale, where he has lots of adventures and experiences but nothing really happens until the very end of the section. When I was reading, I wondered to myself why this story needed to be told. Another middle-class English boy at the end of WW2, London beautifully rendered during this period, dense and atmospheric language, but why? Then things ramp up with a bang, and we suddenly discover that the children really were in danger, and that their mother has a much more interesting life than Nathaniel realized (as do The Moth and The Darter).
After the shocks and revelations that conclude the first section, the second half picks up about thirteen years later. It is the late 1950s and Nathaniel lives in the countryside, next door to his mother’s family home, and he works for the intelligence service. He spent a number of the intervening years with his mother, but his sister has moved away and has nothing to do with either of them. The father continues to be absent. Nathaniel exploits his information access to learn more about what his mother was doing during and after the war, and through flashbacks we read about his life with her in the late 1940s and 1950s.
These parts of the novel really came alive for me. Nathaniel’s mother owns every page she’s on, and the tensions she feels between her various responsibilities and her desires are beautifully depicted. Slowly, over the course of the second section, all kinds of small and large occurrences in the first half are tied together and made sense of. By the end of the novel I realized that everything in the first half, everything I couldn’t understand, had a purpose and a place. But it’s not like a magician’s trick, where you suddenly see what was under the handkerchief. It’s much more organic and subtle than that.
It’s rare that I read a novel in which everything comes together in such an assured and accomplished way. Ondaatje is such an atmospheric writer; you feel the sounds, the smells, the light of the settings, and you feel the emotion as much as you read it. This is a book to reread and savor.
(4.5 stars at Goodreads.)