We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken . . . sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete. . . .
Now and then there would be days in the Archives when I’d come across information from distant events that overlapped with my mother’s activities. I would in this way glimpse details of another operation or place. And so one afternoon, following a tangent to her activities, I came upon references to the transportation of nitroglycerine during the war. How it was transported secretly across the city of London and, because it was dangerous freight, how this needed to be done at night with the public unaware. This had continued even during the Blitz, when there was just warlight. . . .
In Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, two children, 14 and 16, are left by their parents in the care of men and women they do not know, people whose underworld skills have made them invaluable to the British secret service. The boy, now an adult working to understand those years, searching to know his mother and himself, narrates the uncertain story. What they knew in the aftermath of the war was only slightly illumined by the warlight that lingers. What he learns is no less nebulous. From discovered details he constructs whole stories, whole fictional lives, unreliably true stories layered like a large and impossible pearl.
The novel is about the waterways of London and the rural hills of Suffolk and the secrecy of spies and the boy’s awakening sexuality and his mother’s courage and criminal brilliance. Yes, it is replete with those people and events and places. But for me, the book’s power lies in how it turns me to my own checkered and sketchy histories, to the true stories I have constructed that are anything but whole.
I searched the Archives while writing Immortal for Quite Some Time. I’ll search them again with new impetus.