Acclaimed novelist Ondaatje (The Cat’s Table, 2011, etc.) returns to familiar ground: a lyrical mystery that plays out in the shadow of World War II.
In what is arguably his best-known novel, The English Patient (1992), Ondaatje unfolds at leisurely pace a story of intrigue and crossed destinies at the fringes of a global struggle. If anything, his latest moves even more slowly, but to deliberate effect. As it opens, with World War II grinding to a gaunt end, Nathaniel Williams, 14, and his 15-year-old sister, Rachel, learn that their parents are bound for newly liberated Singapore. Rose, their mother, has made the war years bearable with Mrs. Miniver–like resoluteness, but the father is a cipher. So he remains. Nathaniel and Rachel, Rose tells them, are to be left in London in the care of some—well, call them associates. They take over the Williams house, a band both piratical and elegant whose characters, from the classically inclined ringleader, The Moth, to a rough-edged greyhound racer, The Pimlico Darter, could easily figure in a sequel to Great Expectations. “It is like clarifying a fable,” Ondaatje writes in the person of Nathaniel, “about our parents, about Rachel and myself, and The Moth, as well as the others who joined us later.” But that clarification takes a few hundred pages of peering into murky waters: Nathaniel, in adulthood, learns that Rose, who slips back into England soon after sailing away, has been a person of many parts, secretive, in a war that has extended beyond the cease-fire, as partisans battle unrepentant fascists and the early Cold War begins to solidify, a time of betrayal and murder. If Rachel and Nathaniel’s adventures among their surrogate parents, who “did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson,” are far from innocent, the lives of all concerned have hidden depths and secrets, some shameful, some inviting murderous revenge.
Ondaatje’s shrewd character study plays out in a smart, sophisticated drama, one worth the long wait for fans of wartime intrigue.