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2018 Man Booker Longlist: Warlight

warlight

Next up for our shadow panel is Warlight by Michael Ondaatje who just this year won the Golden Man Booker for The English Patient. All of us read this book. Once again, our panel is pretty split on this longlisted book. For the record, Andrew is wrong (I’ll try to argue why in the comment section). Here are our reviews…Warlight: A Novel by Michael Ondaatje
2018 Man Booker (longlist)Published in: 2018
Judges: Jen, Book Worm, Nicole, Lisa Anita, and Andrew
Find it/buy it here: Warlight

Synopsis (from Amazon): In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself–shadowed and luminous at once–we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings’ mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn’t know and understand in that time, and it is this journey–through facts, recollection, and imagination–that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.

Nicole’s Review: I know from reading Neil Gaiman that subtlety in writing is not my thing, and it was driven home in parts of this book.  This IS a spy novel – so you would expect a bit of excitement … alas, it’s a literary spy novel and there was little.

I both liked this more than I expected to, and was disappointed that I wasn’t more blown away by it.  Particularly the writing.  It was good, but for all the hoopla surrounding this guy I’d have thought I’d feel the magnificence.  (My previous Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table was a complete bust.)

This was mostly a very good book, though I was bored at times there were also times I couldn’t wait to get back to it.  The main characters (for me) were not as interesting as the peripheral characters — The Moth, The Darter, Agnes, and others.  The story was interesting and well-told, dealing with family, love, loyalty, sacrifice and how the people and events in our lives shape us.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character Development: 4/4
Plot Development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 16/20

p.s. Jen’s review made me like this book more!  LOL

Jen’s Review: I have to admit that reading Nicole’s review made me chuckle because all the things she disliked about the book were the things I loved. I was reluctant to read this book because I don’t like or enjoy spy novels. I tolerate Le Carre’s novels precisely because they are literary novels. I had zero interest in reading this one and it languished on my bookshelf until I was forced to read it for this shadow panel.

I was wrong. I loved the book and while Nicole found it slow paced and boring, I found it compelling. I loved that it wasn’t really about espionage as it was about family — how we remember them, how they impact our lives, and the ways in which we create our own stories to try and understand the people we love.

This book was near perfection for me. I probably enjoyed Overstory more, but that book had a few flaws whereas it was hard for me to find anywhere to remove points from this book. I found the writing to be amazing but in a non-pretentious way that creeps up on you. Halfway through this book, I thought to myself, “wow, this man can write” and it took me a while to realize how brilliantly written it was. The writing isn’t flowery, pretentious, or overly erudite but it was nevertheless quite perfect.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 5/5
Character Development: 3.5/4
Plot Development: 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 19.5/20

Book Worm’s Review:  I am with Jen on this one. I loved the quiet, subtle way in which the story was built. The genius of this book is the way that memory is captured and where there is no memory a convincing story is provided in its place. I love the half truths, the shadowy people and the way Nathaniel only reaches understanding as an adult.

The family relationships are well drawn and the characters are convincing, I especially loved the secondary characters and how their real roles are only revealed later.

I am going to knock points off for originality as these sort of themes have been covered in other novels I have read and it did remind me of Le Carre’s work.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 3/5
Character Development: 3/4
Plot Development: 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 17/20

Lisa’s Review: Warlight snuck up on me – as Jen promised it would. The first part of the book is told from the point of view of a teenaged boy, Nathanial, as he lives through a series of bizarre experiences in post-WWII London. At times, I was annoyed with how this part of the book meandered. I was waiting to understand, waiting for his life to go somewhere. In retrospect, I realized that this was exactly how this character would have felt too. In the second part of the book, Nathanial looks back as an adult, and pieces together a story about what has happening when he was a teen.

We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we had been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken… sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete.

I was reminded of the research on how the brain guesses what the eye is seeing, even with very few visual data points, or how even people with a less remarkable childhood than that of the narrator still have to put bits of memories together into a coherent story of their lives.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 5/5
Character Development: 3/4
Plot Development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20

Andrew’s Review: Having never read any Michael Ondaatje, but obviously aware of the critical acclaim surrounding “The English Patient,” I started this book with rather high expectations. Perhaps that’s why I was so disappointed. Ondaatje is clearly an extremely talented writer and while I appreciated the prose, I was never taken by the book.

The story starts with a brother and sister abandoned by their parents and becoming the wards of a mysterious family friend. The premise is intriguing and keeps you reading, and the characters who flit in and out of the children’s lives are quirky, but ultimately all we get in the first half of the book is a mundane recounting of the boy’s teenage years. Midway through, the book lurches forward several years and recounts the now young man revisiting his childhood and trying to make sense of it all.

Upon finishing, I found myself wondering what exactly Ondaatje was attempting to accomplish with this novel. Is this a story about a mother and son? About a childhood lost? About the chaotic nature of life in post-war England? All these themes are touched upon, but never really explored in detail. It felt more like an expressionist painting gone wrong; beautiful enough, but ultimately a collection of disparate tones, characters, and themes that don’t really make sense when viewed as a whole.

Writing Quality: 4/5
Originality: 2/5
Character Development: 2/4
Plot Development: 2/4
Overall Enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 11/20

Anita’s Review: I am a sucker for a beautifully constructed sentence, and Warlight has so so many of them. Unfortunately, the other aspects of the book failed to live up to the prose. It’s truly an example of overly controlled plotting. Where is the conflict? The emotion? There were two chapters where these were in evidence. The ending of the first half of the book culminated on a dramatic note, and I felt some hope that finally, at nearly halfway through, we were getting somewhere I wanted to go as a reader. But alas, no. It actually got more boring. The chapter that focuses on Rose and her relationship with Marsh was another high point, but oddly it is narrated by her son, Nathaniel, which in so far as I could tell had absolutely no way of knowing the story he relates. The whole book is from his point of view, and yet suddenly, he’s omniscient? Bottom line, this book took a terrific premise and made it as dull as possible. The only character I cared about, Rachel, was in scant evidence. I gave it a 1 on the overall enjoyment scale only because I did delight in the outstanding use of the English language.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 2/5
Character Development: 2/4
Plot Development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 12/20

Average panel score: 15.58/20

Shadow Panel Ranking of longlist books:
1. Overstory (18/20)
2. Warlight (15.56/20)
3. The Mars Room (14/20)
4. Sabrina (9.5/20)

We want to hear from you. Have you read the book? What did you think? Does it deserve to make the shortlist? Why or why not?

Next up: The Water Cure

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I haven’t read the book but now I want to even more to see which side of the divided opinion I would fall!

    Like

    August 31, 2018
  2. Kristel #

    I am one who likes Ondaatje’s writing so happy to see the high scores.

    Like

    August 31, 2018
  3. mootastic1 #

    I loved this book and am definitely more on the Jen side of the fence.

    Like

    August 31, 2018
  4. Andrew I love the word “Flit” – Anita, Totally agree with your review. NO EMOTION whatsoever … Jen’s review made me like it more, your review made me like it less. I’m confused!

    Like

    August 31, 2018
    • Anita #

      Lol, I have to admit that sometimes reviews do make me lean one way or the other . . .so I know how you feel! I definitely need a book (any book) so check certain boxes in order for me to think it is great. This one only checked the beautiful writing box for me and that’s not enough. I selfishly want it all, but character development (which let’s me feel emotion and care about them) and pacing (building suspense, keeping the reader wanting to read on) are two other priorities, and I wasn’t getting that here.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 31, 2018
  5. Gail #

    Like With Jen, my copy of this book has been sitting on my shelf for awhile and nothing about it was calling to me. However, I just started reading it and now that I read your reviews my expectations are set differently.
    Thanks

    Like

    August 31, 2018
    • Anita #

      Excited to hear what you think, Gail . . .it is interesting that our reviews diverge so widely so clearly more opinions are needed!

      Like

      August 31, 2018
  6. Tracy S #

    I had a hard time connecting with this one. But I was lukewarm about The English Patient, too. Maybe Ondaatje just isn’t my guy.

    Like

    August 31, 2018
  7. Gail #

    I finished Warlight and overall enjoyed it very much. I loved the writing and the host of secondary characters and I even was kept intrigued by the ghostly recreation of a past that the narrator could not know all the details about. I felt it captured the inability of children to really understand their parents as although they may know the facts, the context can not be grasped as clearly. We all make full stories from mere glimpses. I did find it pretentious however in its dedication to the two main characters, Rose and her son, who ultimately were strangely flat because of the author’s commitment to secrets. “The truth of what is before you is clear only to those who lack certainty” captures it for me. The author/the narrator did get me to some version of truth but I missed knowing with some certainty what really motivated these characters and what “really” happened.

    Like

    September 3, 2018
    • Anita #

      I love your assessment of this title, Gail. I think you enjoyed it a bit more than I did, but both your compliments and your criticisms resonated with me.

      Like

      September 4, 2018
  8. Claire Bolsens #

    I just loved this book and thought it much better than the English patient, but that can be due to age.
    What struck me most is the way the style and content match. The writing of diffuse memories, of things not understood/misunderstood is written in excellent prose. The goal of the book is not big plot twists or lots of emotion, but a recollection of the past that comes slow, fragmented and unclear. It is the way it works in real life.

    Like

    September 9, 2018

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