In post-War London, Nathaniel and his sister Rachel have been left behind by parents who decided, for reasons they don’t make clear, to go to Singapore for a year. Although the plan was for the two to go to boarding school, they were so miserable that their caretaker, a man they call “The Moth,” allows them to switch back to being day students, living at their home with him.
Nathaniel recalls those years with some fondness, but with a lot of questions, too:
I am still uncertain whether the period that followed disfigured or energized my life. I was to lose the pattern and restraint of family habits during that time, and as a result, later on, there would be a hesitancy in me, as if I had too quickly exhausted my freedoms. In any case, I am now of an age where I can talk about it, of how we grew up protected by the arms of strangers.
Mysterious people come and go, Nathaniel is drawn into what looks like a smuggling operation, and questions arise as to whether his mother ever really left London. And then events occur that reveal that his mother’s life was far more complicated than Nathaniel realized. From there, the book jumps forward in time, with an adult Nathaniel trying to uncover who his mother was and why she chose the dangerous life she lived.
This is the first book I’ve read by Michael Ondaatje, although he’s been on my list of authors to try for years. Reading this, I could see why he’s so acclaimed. The writing has a clear and unfussy, but evocative style that just swept me along. I did find the timeline in the latter half a little hard to follow at times, but that’s also the half where the book gets interesting.
As Nathaniel looks into his mother’s life, he realizes how little he understood about what was going on around him, but his misunderstanding goes deeper than not realizing the nature of his mother’s work. He also doesn’t really know who she was, who anyone was. Right up to the last moments of the book, he’s learning how little he knew of the people around him. He said early in the novel that he was “protected by the arms of strangers,” referring to The Moth and his associate, the Darter. But even after his mother returned, he was protected by a stranger. A stranger who loved and cared for him, but a stranger nonetheless.
I don’t think we’re meant to see Nathaniel as obtuse in his lack of understanding, however. What’s really going on is that each character’s inner life can only be known to that character. Nathaniel only understands what others choose to reveal. If he were more insightful, he might understand more, but knowledge of others would not be complete. With time and experience, understanding can grow, but it’s never immediate or easy.