The English Patient: Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient is set in Italy against the backdrop of the second world war. The book begins with the plane crash of an English man (nicknamed as ‘The English Patient’) who gets badly burnt in the crash. He is taken care of by a nurse, Hana. They live in an abandoned church turned into a hospital during the war. When all the other nurses and patients move out, Hana and her patient decide to stay back. The patient stays because he cannot be moved and Hana stays because she is in love with him. The book proceeds and we see the entry of two more characters, Caravaggio and Kip.

This book is about these four characters, affected by the war in their own way. It is about their love, their loss, their eccentricities and their lives.

The first thing that gets you is the writing. Ondaatje’s writing is like poetry – it is like free flow of a river. His choice of words, his description – it is a pleasure to read this book. No words can describe his skills, so let me just quote a few lines from his book.

She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awakening from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

The second best thing about the book is definitely the characterization. Ondaatje skillfully shows the oft quoted rule in writing, ‘Show; Don’t tell‘. He creates his characters and lets them reveal themselves through their actions. An incident in the villa, a character’s habit, an eccentricity, a thought, an opinion – these build characters like no character description can. Each character is so beautifully etched – they will remain with the reader long after reading the book.

I didn’t find anything extraordinary in the story. It’s a typical love story – a story of survival and loss and post-war effects. I really didn’t pay much attention to the story when I was gorging on Ondaatje’s words.

This is not one your run-of-the-mill books. Some may even find it heavy and slow. When you start reading this book, if you find yourself looking forward to the story and happenings, you should probably stop reading. Just enjoy the journey, relish Ondaatje’s exquisite writing and the book will be a treat.

This book may not feature in my favorites list, but Michael Ondaatje certainly figures in my favorite writers list – right on top.


2 Responses to “The English Patient: Michael Ondaatje”

  1. Faisal Says:

    Hey Anaamica,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your short yet robust review of ‘The English Patient’. I too couldn’t find anything extraordinary in this novel, rather found it to be– as you said– ‘heavy and slow’. Even the prose was too arcane for a lay reader like me. My belief in Booker has started to shake.

    Characters in the book were, however, quite powerful, and seemed to have been carved out of some deep inquiry into human mind.

  2. Magdelena Lindstrom Says:

    Hey Anaamica,

    Thanks for your remarks on The English Patient, and thanks for starting this discussion out. I agree with you that Ondaatje is a phenomenal stylist. He can really use words; did you know he writes poetry?

    One thing you didn’t mention that I found compelling in the book was the relationships between the characters. The relationship between Hana and the Patient is complex. She reads to him his beloved Herodotus. It is true that she may be in love with him, but the burns that cover his body make even touch difficult and preclude physical intimacy. She also administers the morphine that makes his survival bearable. And at a certain point his request for a fatal overdose to end his suffering lands in her hands.

    Kip arrives, a beautiful young man, quite a foil to the Patient.

    The other arresting sets of relationships take place in flashbacks, and show the complexities of a love triangle involving the Patient, his good friend, and his friend’s wife.
    There’s a lot going on in terms of emotional entanglement.

    When I finished the book I felt a loss because I wanted the narrative to continue unfolding. But I wasn’t sure if there was a moral point to take away, or if the work was basically a very engrossing entertainment.

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