Book Review – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje took the concept of creativity to unheard of levels with The English Patient. He presented a narrative about four totally unique characters’ lives intertwining. While that would be a superlative achievement in itself for many authors, he then set his main story in an Italian villa at the end of the Second World War. The characters then experienced flashbacks. This took the narrative into the deserts of North Africa during the 1930s. What a creative use of setting! In addition, he expressed himself so eloquently, that at times I thought the book a work of poetry.

Mr. Ondaatje wove a complex narrative about the coming together of four unique characters. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading about a cast this original. All of them added to the organic whole of the piece; none seemed contrived. Hana the nurse refused to leave the villa following the evacuation of all the patients save the title character. The author added a thief named Caravaggio to the mix. He then included Kip, a soldier from India, who defused bombs. Of course, the enigmatic character of the English Patient served as the center of the story.

The author sedulously researched this tale. On page 303 the author cited a number of sources he consulted regarding the desert and exploration of the North African region in the 1930s. It showed. Overall, the writing came across as very credible.

The author also made numerous references to Herodotus’ The Histories. The English Patient possessed that book when he turned up at the villa. He referred to the book repeated times throughout the narrative. The way Mr. Ondaatje wove it into the story I wondered if he knew its contents better than the original author.

The author utilized a very intriguing structure. He varied the points-of-view while including a series of flash backs. In spite of this intricacy, he kept the reader engaged. The main reason I read so intently centered on the use of language. For me, it defined the core essence of this book. At times the narrative read more like verse than prose. The elegant way the author described an affair affected me the most. It read:

She picks up a cushion and places it on her lap as a shield against him. “If you make love to me I won’t lie about it. If I make love to you I won’t lie about it.”
She moves the cushion against her heart, as if she would suffocate that part of herself which has broken free.
“What do you hate most?” he asks.
“A lie. And you?”
“Ownership,” he says. “When you leave me, forget me.”
Her fist swings towards him and hits hard into the bone just below his eye. She dresses and leaves. (Page 152)

I liked the passage’s eloquence. At the same time, I could visualize this happening. The author made the scene believable.

Another line from this book that grabbed my attention read:

But here they were shedding skins. They could imitate nothing but what they were. There was no defense but to look for the truth in others. (Page 117)

When I picked up The English Patient and read the blurb about it winning the Man-Booker Prize, I cringed. Many award winning books have left me feeling, well, frustrated. I struggle to understand them. Then I lose sleep trying to figure out why they got published let alone won anything. This book was a delightful exception. While the story interested me I found the fantastic language alone justified taking the time to read it. Since I now have a background and understand the overall premise, I look forward to reading this book again to see what else I discover in it. It’s not often I finish reading a book and get excited about doing so once more. For once, I can put in writing that I read a book that truly lived up to its reputation.

One comment

  1. It’s been too long since I read this book. There’s a movie based on it. I’ve never seen it. Have you? I always wanted to re-read this work too. Maybe I’ll see the movie first.

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