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.