Narrated by Nathaniel, the book opens with the statement:
“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”It snags the reader in what would seemingly be a tome of young children and their existence in the post war London years. But it, like a good part of the book, is merely a fragment of a puzzle that poses a challenge for those who try to piece it together. When Nathaniel (age 14) and his sister, Rachel (age 16), are left by their parents, to go to live in Singapore where the father has been promoted to run a Unilever office. Their mother, Rose, entrusts their keeping to a friend, Walter, whom the children name The Moth because he is so quiet. With The Moth running some shady business, the children are virtually left on their own. The first half of the novel relates their lives there as they meet and interact with other adults who comprise The Moth's group of acquaintances, including the Pimlico Darter (Norman) and Olive Lawrence who is an ecologist and ethnographer. Despite some criminal leanings The Darter becomes a surrogate guardian to Nathaniel as they smuggle dogs into London for illegal racing as does The Moth to Rachel. The two grow up quickly as they experience life in London, all the time wondering where there mother has gone. Nathaniel works for The Moth at the Criterion, a banquet hall where he meets Agnes, named for the street where she lived and who is first sexual experience. When a kidnap attempt is made on the two children, the realization that there is something more to the disappearance of Rose.
In the second part of the book, Nathaniel, now a grown man, reflects on those years, his mother's whereabouts, and the covert activities that kept her at a distance from her children. Working at the British Classified Archives, he discovers documents that help him discover what Rose's part was. Ondaatje reveals bits and pieces of that action to the reader over the course of the second half chapters. There are clues and innuendoes that need to be assembled before a clear vision of Rose's life is understood. A seemingly unimportant incident of a thatcher falling from the roof of Rose's parents home escalates into a critical time in her life.
Warlight references the light that, even tho dimmed, guided emergency traffic in London during World War II. But it also takes on an added meaning of the secrecy and shrouded surreptitiousness of espionage, smuggling, codenames, and interrogations. This is not a book for the faint of heart, but for those who appreciate the complexities of a nuanced novel that reveals its own secrets in measured increments.