It is 1945. 14 year old Nathaniel and his 16 year old sister Rachel find themselves abandoned by their parents. As it is both of them were secretive about their war time work. The kids are flabbergasted by yet anoththey were told of the departure, no further details were given. The confusion turns into a sense of betrayal when they find their mother’s luggage that should have been with her, in their basement. They are left in the care of a character they call ‘The Moth’ , a strange man who had been inhabiting the upper floor of their house.
The first half of the story weaves itself around the strange characters that float in and out of their home, The Moth’s friends. The Darter, Olive, the ethnologist, the Russian woman that was Darter’s girlfriend and so on. Each of them include one or the other of the kids in their strange occupations and influence them in their growing up years one way or the other. Meanwhile, Nathaniel starts working in the kitchen of a restaurant where he strikes up a friendship with a girl called Agnes. They meet up at night in houses put up for sale, letting themselves in with keys borrowed from Agnes’s real estate agent brother. The life that has now become normal comes to an abrupt halt with an almost catastrophic event that turns fatal to one of the characters.
The second half finds us years later with Nathaniel trying to piece together the years of his uncertainty as well his mother’s life, from her childhood, youth and marriage, the war years and post that and her professional and personal relationship with the suave and enigmatic Felon Marsh. Each earlier character’s role is revealed slowly. The story ends with an extremely unexpected twist that reminds us of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’.
That Michael Ondaatje is a writer unparalleled is a given fact. He doesn’t let the reader down, yet again. Lives entwine each other, threads that were unraveled once get caught up with each other again and there is vengeance, but with a cause. Every act has a reason for the actors, but do they know the consequences fully? Once they come to know of it, are they penitent or do they accept it and go on with their lives? The ongoing thread seem to be how your acts are never left dangling in the air, that there are always after effects.
The language as expected is exquisite. It caresses you as you feel for each of the characters. And the final twist is something you would never imagine.
If you love well etched characters, a story that flows gently like a calm river (who said war stories have to be violent?) and an ending that makes you gasp at first and then accept it and go on without upsetting the applecart as Nathaniel did, do not miss it.