Half the life of cities occurs at night
In 1945, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, 16-year-old Rachel, eke out an existence in London's Ruvigny Gardens. With their parents gone, and rarely spoken about, Nathaniel and Rachel find themselves looked after by a mysterious guardian called The Moth, whom Rachel suspects works as some sort of petty criminal. It's a strange and sudden arrangement in a haphazard life. Nathaniel is only partially aware that his father was involved in the last stages of the earlier war and that his mother contributed to the clear transmission of radio broadcasts to Allied troops behind enemy lines in Europe.
Thus the siblings begin a new life with their new third-floor lodger. At war's end, Ruvigny Gardens is still partly in rubble. But The Moth, through his blind charisma, animates this ramshackle, dilapidated neighborhood. A private man who loves classical music, The Moth spends his days at Bigg's Row, eventually enlisting Nathaniel to work as a cleaner in the Criterion's vast banquet halls. The Moth begins to fill out the house with his eccentric friends: chess players, a slow-moving opera singer, a gardener, The Darter (a possible greyhound thief), The Darter's girlfriend, and Olive Lawrence, a fashionable ethnographer who has a tactile curiosity about what interests her and a calmness that allows Nathaniel and Rachel to find comfort within her intimate space.
London's half-light is gorgeously presented through the precise palette of Ondaatje's prose. It is a time of war ghosts and grey unlit buildings, where at night only a few children walk the streets. The man Nathaniel thinks of as quiet and shy now seems quite dangerous as he introduces them to unused locations lit by 19th-century sodium lamps. Nathaniel and Rachel would be close only during this early period when they share this double life, before they have to "fend for themselves." At the Criterion, Nathaniel meets Agnes Street, who introduces him to the blush of sexual exploration. At nights, The Darter takes on a sudden new role as his father, assuming a protective and avuncular air. He takes Agnes and Nathaniel on a Thames mussel boat, traveling as far west as Richmond and north and east towards Newton's Pool and Waltham Abbey.
In 1959, Nathaniel's efforts to rediscover his mother's footsteps lead him to the bucolic Sussex village of White Paint, where he buys and rebuilds an abandoned cottage from an elderly woman called Mrs. Malakite. Here he discovers that the little girl who grew up beside this small village was, in fact, a well-traveled sophisticate. Nathaniel spends much of his adult life working in a government building, attempting to trace the career of his mother and her strange, mercurial connection to the long-forgotten Darter, the smuggler and minor criminal who had possibly "been a hero of sorts."
Although the timeline is confusing and the sensuality a bit overwritten, Ondaatje makes Nathaniel's universe resonate. I was a bit disappointed in the last part, in which his mother's role in the Resistance is finally exposed: "There were so many like her, who were content in the modesty of their wartime skills." The author includes a distinctive and elusive cast of characters who are revelatory in their musings. In what is basically a coming-of-age story, Ondaatje unspools Nathaniel's magical world, points of connection that we never stop to consider.
Shaded with elements of espionage, Ondaatje's story feels like a ghost-tinged memoir. Images come to us in fragments, from the beginnings of Nathaniel's friendship and the blossoming of first love to his search for justice and honor for his mother. Like a carefully unwinding strip of paper, the novel is full of new discoveries and surprises as Nathaniel attempts to put it all together.