The Runaways

Tessa Hadley

  • Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
    Cape, 299 pp, £16.99, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 78733 071 9

If you took only the subject matter of Michael Ondaatje’s novels into account, you would expect him to be an austere and even punishing writer. He chooses the darkest material, chronicles passages of life that would test the most resilient cheerfulness. Coming through Slaughter (1976) is loosely based on the tragic life of the jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden, who died in an asylum in New Orleans. Anil’s Ghost (2000) takes on the opening years of the civil war in Ondaatje’s native Sri Lanka. In The English Patient (1992), a man is dying from burns in Italy amid the mayhem of the Second World War. The new novel, Warlight, unfolds – in London and Suffolk and the lower reaches of the Thames – in the grim aftermath of that war: a middle-class brother and sister, seemingly abandoned by their mother, fall into the capital’s underworld, learning to respect and trust its gamblers and thieves. The mood of Ondaatje’s novels is serious, and they take him a long time to write – seven years between each one. He does a lot of research, which he enumerates conscientiously in his acknowledgments; the books are not shallow or perfunctory. And yet the impression they leave isn’t of a stern confrontation with the worst. They sidestep that: they almost seem, for all the research and the heaped-up detail, to sidestep realism altogether. Ondaatje doesn’t flinch – in Anil’s Ghost especially – from horrors, but his stories have something like the charged solemnity of fantasy.

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