Why Michael Ondaatje thinks his latest book, Warlight, is more than a war novel

The author The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion discusses his latest novel, a work set shortly after the Second World War.
Michael Ondaatje is the celebrated author of works such as The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion. (McClelland & Stewart)

Michael Ondaatje's Warlight is the lushly told story of a young man trying to understand his strange childhood. In the days following the Second World War, Nathaniel and his sister are abandoned by their parents in their London home and left in the care of two devoted men. It's a story that traces the journey of a son attempting to understand war and his family's involvement in it.

Between war and peace

"I've always been interested in that shift from war to peace or peace to war. That boundary is a time when people don't fully understand how safe they are. Warlight begins at the point where Nathaniel is unsafe for a good part of the book. At a later stage in his life, he ends up in a place that is protected. I had the idea that Nathaniel learns and understands everyone around him, except himself. The process of the book is an education for Nathaniel to understand who the people defending him were. "

Finding your family

"I was interested in my own family because they are people I did not know that well.  When I'm writing a book, discovering character is the thing that keeps me going. I think there is a need in that, but sometimes you become so obsessive that you don't live a real life. You have to find your own parent."

A guiding light

"Warlight is not a war novel. 'Warlight' is an invented word. At one moment in the book, I describe the River Thames at night during the war. With all the arches of a bridge crossing the river, there is only one arch that can be used safely. There is a small, yellow light at the top of that arch — an important clue for those using the river at night. That small, lit thing gives you an unusual perception of a time and a place. I wanted to write a tone or a kind of light to suggest that time for those around before and after the war."  

Michael Ondaatje's comments have been edited and condensed.