“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Warlight is a story of intrigue during World War II. The narrator of the story (Nathaniel) is 14 years old when his parents announce that they are leaving for a year to go to Singapore for his father’s job at Unilever. The narrator’s sister, Rachel, is 16 at the time.
The father leaves first and the mother, Rose, stays for a while to prepare her children for boarding school. During their week-ends and holidays the children will return to the London house on Ruvigny Gardens and be cared for by the family’s border, whom they have nicknamed “The Moth” (Walter). During this short period of time prior to the start of boarding school, their mother makes a big production of packing her steamer trunk and discussing the need for various items for her trip to Singapore. After their parents leave, Rachel and Nathaniel fail miserably at boarding school and return to Ruvigny Gardens to live full time with The Moth.
“At the end of our first winter, while we were living with The Moth, Rachel made me follow her down to the basement, and there, under a tarpaulin and several boxes she had pulled away, was our mother’s steamer trunk.” Thus begins the mystery of their parents whereabouts.
The Moth has a number of interesting friends who spend time at Ruvigny Gardens. The first of these friends, and the one with the most lasting impact on Nathaniel is Norman Marshall, nicknamed the Pimlico Darter due to has boxing past. When the Moth is out for more than a day, the Darter drives by and checks on Nathaniel and Rachel. “…the tensions we felt whenever The Moth left home were the result not of our guardian’s absence but of the knowledge that The Darter had permission to oversee us with grudging, uninterested concern.”
Nathaniel finds a job in a restaurant where he meets his romantic interest, Agnes. The two have numerous romantic interludes in empty houses that her brother is attempting to sell. The first such house is on Agnes street and thus she adopts the name Agnes. Nathaniel can never remember her real name. Nathaniel begins working with the Darter transporting Greyhounds for racing and later transporting something less known and more nefarious, along the Thames. He introduces The Darter to Agnes as his father and Agnes and the Darter get along well.
The Darter brings a number of his romantic interests to Ruvigny Gardens. Olive Lawrence, one of The Darter’s women, is a geographer and ethnographer. She takes a particular interest in Rachel and Nathaniel and has a lasting impact on them even after she leaves.
At one point, Agnes and Nathaniel believe they are being followed and successfully elude the man at issue. One night in a lift on the underground, Nathaniel finds himself isolated with the same man he believed had been following him. When the man shatters the light bulb and pulls the emergency lever, Nathaniel is able to restart the elevator and escape. One of The Moth’s friends, Arthur McCash, shows particular interest in this incident.
As you can probably tell at this point, Rose was a spy and most of the house guests were somehow associated with her and looking after her children. Father’s role and location is never quite clear. Although a lot goes on in this book (much more than I have told you), it is at the same time sort of slow and plodding. The first half is in fact a bit dull, although the book definitely picks up in the second half. Nathaniel is telling the story from his vantage point of having felt abandoned and betrayed by his mother’s secret life and some of the secrets he continues to uncover as he grows older.
If you are interested in a World War II story told from a different angle, with a bit of intrigue and a bit of neurosis, give this book a try. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking here.