03 May 2009

Review: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

In an Italian villa turned Canadian field hospital at the end of World War II, twenty-year-old Hana watches as her colleagues move on to their next station. She has made the decision to stay behind to nurse a badly burned English patient who cannot be moved. The English patient does not remember his name or much of his life. He knows he spent time in the North African desert as an explorer, and he has retained his knowledge of ancient history.

Hana, tired of death, spends her days scrounging for food, trying to make a garden, and tending to the English patient. Their solitary existence is suddenly disrupted by the appearance of David Caravaggio, a prewar friend of Hanna's father. Caravaggio, a thief by trade, was used by the army to gather intelligence; he was caught by the enemy and tortured but managed to escape. When he hears of Hana's location, the injured man, heads off to find her.

Finally, Kip, an Indian sapper, sets up his tent on the villa's grounds and becomes part of the circle whose focal point is the English patient. Although he ventures out into Florence each day to defuse bombs and land mines with his British Army company, he returns to the villa as night falls.

Through flashbacks and conversations among the characters, we learn the stories of the three men and one woman. Each has suffered from the horrors of war. Although they are all leery of making close connections with others, they cannot help unburdening themselves, in bits and pieces, during the long nights.

The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize, often appears in the those lists of must-read novels or the best all-time fiction. And indeed Ondaatje's writing can be beautiful and vivid:

It was 1943. The First Canadian Infantry Division worked its way up Italy, and the destroyed bodies were fed back to the field hospitals like mud passed back by tunnellers in the dark. (p. 49)

But other times it is just plain obscure:

When sunlight enters a room where there is a fire, the fire will go out. (p. 197)

And at other times, I just didn't know what to think—profound or . . . what?

n the desert the most loved waters, like a lover's name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence. (p. 141)

I found the book slow going and unsatisfying over all. I had difficulty making an emotional investment in the characters, and thus I wasn't really curious about their ultimate fate. Kip was the most sympathetic character and perhaps the most realistic and least damaged. Maybe it is significant that he is also the only non-Westerner.

I am not at all sorry to have read The English Patient. Do I actually recommend it? That's hard to say. It is a book worth trying. I had seen the movie (which I hated), and thus some of the characters' secrets were already known to me. If I had started the book fresh, I may have had more motivation to discover the stories and sorrows of Hana and the three men.

Published by Knopf Doubleday, 1993
ISBN-13: 9780679745204
Challenges: A-Z Author, New Author, 999, Spring Reading, 100+
YTD: 33
Rating: C+


bermudaonion 5/3/09, 9:01 AM  

This was my second time with The English Patient and I did enjoy it more this time, but I still didn't love it. I found my mind wandering as I read it.

Julie P. 5/3/09, 9:09 AM  

I just tivoed the movie, but I might have to pass on it!

Dorte H 5/3/09, 9:24 AM  


Beth, I still feel I should read it - but perhaps there is no hurry.

I loved the film, though. Quiet, but also sad in a wonderful way and very memorable.

Unknown 5/3/09, 9:36 AM  

That's a shame - I thought you were going to love it.

I'll prepare myself for not liking it then, and make sure I have a really good book lined up for when I finish it.

SmilingSally 5/3/09, 9:41 AM  

I was interested in reading your review and agree with you. This is one of those books that EVERYONE said was sooo good. It's one of mine that failed the 50-page test; that's a very short list.

Someone has to tell the emperor that he has no clothes!

Unknown 5/3/09, 9:48 AM  

I've seen this book reviewed on quite a few blogs now. I haven't read it yet but I know I have to. I will one day but I'm not rushing.

Meghan 5/3/09, 9:54 AM  

I agree with your evaluation of some of the prose. It's unquestionably beautiful but sometimes was little too obscure for me.

Jennie 5/3/09, 10:32 AM  

I have to say I agree with you, on both the book and the movie. I'd seen (and despised) the movie first, but I gave the book a try anyway, and I had much the same reaction you did. (namely, many, many moments where I would stop and say "ehh, what?")

Tina Kubala 5/3/09, 10:37 AM  

I loved the movie. It came out while I was in high school. My mom and I saw it five times in the theater. When I read the book, I wasn't captivated at the same level. It's such fancy writing, the story gets a bit lost.

Unknown 5/3/09, 10:47 AM  

I think it's one of the greatest books AND movies of all time. Sorry you didn't care for either of them.

Sandy Nawrot 5/3/09, 12:44 PM  

Sometimes I think the impact of a story can get lost with language that is over the top. It is very disappointing to me that the book came across this way, as I LOVED the movie. It was so big, and romantic, and tragic. I'm bummed.

Ladytink_534 5/3/09, 1:42 PM  

Normally something like this wouldn't even vaguely intrigue me but for some reason it does! Well until I read the quotes you provided and had a couple of huh?! moments.

Alyce 5/3/09, 1:58 PM  

I'm planning to read this one someday. I thought the movie was ok, but I didn't hate it. I guess I'll just have to wait and see what I think of the book.

Alix 5/3/09, 4:24 PM  

Interesting, I haven't read the book but I saw the movie which I thought had high points and low points.

I remember everyone going crazy over it when it came out and almost felt bad for not loving it :)

Matt 5/3/09, 5:49 PM  

I only vaguely remember that Hanna has taken care of an English patient who didn't remember his name. It's great this book has kept re-surfacing among many blogs. It's due for another read for sure.

Toni 5/3/09, 8:51 PM  

I am going to read this sometime. I thought the movie was acted well. I enjoyed reading your excellent review.

Melody 5/4/09, 2:57 AM  

I haven't watch or read this yet but I've managed to find one from BookMooch! I hope the book owner will agree to send it to me.

Serena 5/4/09, 12:03 PM  

i really enjoyed the book more than the movie, but it is a slower read.

Belle 5/4/09, 1:50 PM  

This is one of those books that have been on my "I really should read this" list for ages. I'm just not that big on literary fiction, no matter how beautiful the writing is, unless there's a good and moving story involved.

Olga 5/4/09, 2:56 PM  

Michael O is one of Canada's shining beacons of literary fiction, but you're right--he can be a little obtuse. I attempted The English Patient years ago but wasn't ready for it, so I abandoned the book. A couple of years ago I read Divisadero, his latest book, and thought it was pretty obtuse, but well-written. Perhaps I'll give this another go one day. I've been told it's very romantic.

Margot 5/4/09, 6:02 PM  

I like post WW2 stories and this plot line sounds so promising. Then it falls flat - how disappointing.

S. Krishna 5/4/09, 9:50 PM  

Great review. You are right, this book wasn't emotionally engaging!

Bernadette 5/5/09, 6:04 AM  

I read this several years ago Beth but I can still remember the sour taste it left - you've encapsulated my feelings very nicely

Anna 5/5/09, 8:06 PM  

This one's on my shelf, but I haven't read it yet. Sorry it was disappointing for you. I haven't seen the movie, either. Would it be okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations?

Diary of an Eccentric

Beth F 5/5/09, 8:10 PM  

Anna: Absolutely feel free to add a link to my review. Thanks so much for asking.

Kailana 5/6/09, 3:47 PM  

Yeah, I have been trying to forget the movie before I read the book. I was thinking about it the other day, and I think I might have reached that point! If I get to it, I will be curious to see what I think about it.

Desert Rose 5/8/09, 6:38 AM  

I had the impression i won't enjoy this book because i didn't really like the movie, your review confirmed that. Thanks for the review it will save me time to read another book that i might enjoy ;)

Joanne ♦ The Book Zombie 5/8/09, 12:55 PM  

I've been planning to read this for ages. Maybe someday, but after seeing these quotes hmmm...

The second one about sunlight and fire made me imagine my high school english teacher saying: "Oh it's so obvious that he meant the good, pure sunlight overpowers the light from the dark, evil fire." It just seems like one of those phrases that is meant to be poetically powerful but just makes me shake my head lol.

Kim 6/2/09, 1:57 PM  

Loved this book, one of my favorites. I remember thinking Kip was kind of hot, but I was younger then. What I recall as my takeaway had to do with the role of nationalism, how where we come from is erased in some situations and then profoundly influences our relationships in others. Wasn't as crazy about the movie, nor I have I liked his subsequent books as much.

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