This is a new novel by the author of The English Patient, whose writing is amazing– simultaneously luminous, charming, and confounding. Eccentric characters come to light here against the gloom of post war London. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Nothing feels safe and no one can be trusted. In the dim Warlight there is much unseen.
Those that were working in the shadows of WWII were transitioning to working for what would be eventually be called The Cold War. However, if you wanted to get out of your clandestine war work, it is not so easy, because you’ve generated powerful enemies meanwhile.
To Nathaniel, whose parents abandoned both him and his sister in their efforts to exit the war, all this is an enigma needing to be unravelled. While trying to save their children and keep them safe, they altered their lives in irredeemable ways. You can see why these parents thought leaving their kids in boarding schools would be just fine, but how many other parents make choices too that end up not being as innocuous as they thought? And then their kids spend their lives trying to sort it all out and get past it. Maybe our own parents are the most mysterious people we ever don’t know?
This book reminds us that there are so many unknown heroes, and that there are huge prices paid for their contributions by their children and families. The dangers of espionage slam into all of their lives. We want to make the world a better place for our kids, but what fixing of the world’s problems is worth jeopardizing your children? How does one sort between the two?
It is not surprising that school would seem insipid and negligible to these kids, when compared to the more fascinating furtive activities of their shady caregivers and their cohorts. “I am still uncertain whether the period that followed disfigured or energized my life.” In the baffling new home life with their parents gone, there is so much more to learn than school could ever include. Furthermore, what Nathaniel most wants to understand is what his parents were doing to that was so important to leave him to fend for himself.
There are things we learn meanwhile, like the nefarious nature of greyhound racing, chess tactics, cows eating their afterbirth to strengthen them, buildering at Trinity college, munitions manufacture, thatching tools, and the hidden London canal network.
This novel is about the hard to plumb secrets of identity and the meandering ways memory is constructed. The brilliant, poetic writing never gets in the way of this rather plotless, but yet compelling story. This is literature, full of fresh perspectives without much character development, and while not long, it is slow going. It is best read in longer bursts, rather than short, sporadic ones. To some, the lack of concrete, linear plot, together with no focus on character development may translate as a significant negative, but this is multi-layered and complex in theme, rich in language, atmosphere, conjecture, and imagery instead.
Without this having been a book group title, it is unlikely I would have read this thought provoking novel. I give this evocative read four stars.