The title of this dreamlike novel refers to the tiny, discreet points of London street illumination used during the WWII blackouts, which were designed to guide, not illuminate. This principle shapes the efforts of Ondaatje’s main character as he struggles with the relationship between memory and truth.
Trying to piece together the contexts for his adolescent experiences, he first recalls the years in which his parents disappeared without explanation, leaving him in the care of a pair of kindly but cryptic “secretives.” Obsessed with understanding the reason for his mother’s abandonment of him and his sister, Nathaniel realizes “I loved the truth that strangers told,” and painstakingly assembles the stories of the men who care for him, their friends, his sister, his first love, and finally his mother, through his own and others’ recollection and evidence, eventually forming an understanding of his mother’s life and heroism as an intelligence officer.
The novel itself is a kind of forensic narrative, formed of fragments of dialogue and bright points of description, requiring patient attention as Nathaniel comes to realize the truth of the present by way of the shadowy lies and concealments of the past. Ondaatje is a master of the lyrical episode and of natural detail; his characters seem frustratingly opaque at first, but as the web of connections between them deepens and spins, they spring into sharp relief. This is an exceptionally well-crafted story that builds slowly and inexorably to its devastating final revelations. The poignant final chapter will haunt my imagination for a long time.