Cover image of "Warlight," a World War II novel

For most of London’s eight million people, the end of World War II marked the beginning of a promising new era. The bombing had stopped, the boys were coming home, and a new Labour government promised to turn its attention to making life better. But for Nathaniel and Rachel Williams, 1945 ushered in a terrifying new time. As Nathaniel recalls, “Our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” One, a stranger they call “The Moth,” seems to be in charge. But others mysteriously drift in and out of the house as the months go by. And gradually, very gradually, the children begin to learn a little about the “war work” their mother had been doing for the past several years. So begins Michael Ondaatje’s haunting World War II novel, Warlight.

Mysterious nighttime errands with a smuggler

One of the men closest to The Moth is an ex-prizefighter known to the children as The Pimlico Darter. He’s a garden-variety criminal who now specializes in smuggling greyhounds into Britain to race at the country’s many illegal dog tracks. Nathaniel accompanies him on many of his nighttime trips to unload the dogs from barges on the Thames and truck them to other locations. But it’s not all about dogs. The Darter performs other clandestine errands in the dark as well, moving crates from one place to another in the city. (He later learns the crates contain nitroglycerine.) Nathaniel finds it exciting, and the Darter pays him a few bob for the help. But it’s most important because along the way the boy begins to pick up hints about his mother’s work. Then he and Rachel learn that she never went away with their father at all. And her wartime work appears to be continuing. The mystery deepens.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018) 304 pages ★★★★☆

Aerial view of bomb damage in London in 1945, when this World War II novel begins
This was London in 1945, as Ondaatje’s tale begins. The world believed the war was over, and evidence like this confirmed it. But the children at the heart of this story know better, as the end of the war begins a life of confusion and uncertainty for them. Image: National Geographic

Years later, Nathaniel learns the truth about his mother

Over the years, Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives drift apart, he to university, she to a career as an actress. She has left their post-war years behind. But Nathaniel is haunted by the mystery of their mother’s career. It’s become obvious that, both during the war and afterwards, Rose Williams was working for the British secret service. And, it turns out, both The Moth and The Darter and at least some of their associates were, too. But it’s not until 14 years after the war that Nathaniel begins to gain access to the full picture. The same secret security service that had employed Rose now recruits him for a job in its archives. And there Nathaniel digs deeply into the records and learns the disturbing story of his mother’s life as a spy.

About the author

Photo of Michael Ondaatje, author of this World War II novel
Michael Ondaatje speaking at Tulane University in 2008. Image: Wikipedia

The Sri-Lankan-born Canadian poet Michael Ondaatje (1943-) has won numerous awards for his work, including the Booker Prize for The English Patient. He is the author of seven novels, of which Warlight is the most recent, and 13 collections of poetry as well as many other literary works. Ondaatje has two children with his first wife.

For more reading

Check out 20 most enlightening historical novels.

You might also enjoy my posts:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.