Michael Ondaatje at his book publishing house in Toronto. Photographer: Steve Rice/TNS
Set in postwar London, Michael Ondaatje’s novel Warlight delves into the shadows left by the war, on a young man trying to make sense of what happened to his family, and on a city forever changed. For those who enjoyed the book, here are a few suggestions for further reading.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson. I thought of this book often while reading Warlight; it’s a similar setting, and a similar focus on secrets and carefully unraveled stories. The book flits between two time periods: A young woman who works during wartime as a transcriptionist for MI5 (eavesdropping on suspected fascist sympathizers), and that same character 10 years later, still haunted by her past. Atkinson’s wartime novels — I also loved “Life After Life” and “A God in Ruins” — are structured like delicate puzzles; it’s a joy figuring out how she puts them together.
Sweet Tooth and Atonement by Ian McEwan. Atonement, McEwan’s gorgeous World War II-era novel (and subsequent gorgeous movie), came up in our book-club discussion, and you should absolutely go read it (and see it) if you haven’t already. But I thought a closer match was a lesser-known McEwan novel: Sweet Tooth, set in Cold War London and, like Transcription, involving a young woman working as a spy. The book rather deliciously compares spying to reading — and what is getting lost in a novel, if it isn’t spying on someone else’s life?
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. You can’t talk about British postwar novels without this Man Booker Prize winner, one of my all-time favorite books (and also a splendid movie). The reserved, quiet butler of a British country house takes a road trip in the 1950s, looking back on what happened at that house as wartime clouds gathered. It’s a short, perfect novel of repression, regret and rueful hope; every sentence is a gem.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Published in 2006, this twisty, backwards-told tale of three women and one man in war-torn London won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction; it immerses its reader in sights and smells and fears of wartime. Like Warlight, many secrets are eventually revealed. (A different war, but also a marvelously gripping read, is Waters’ The Paying Guests, set in post-World War I London.)
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