The English Patient


This is one of the more intriguing books I have read this year.

The story is about 4 strangers rattling together in an abandoned Italian villa just after World War II ends.

There is the English patient (who may or may not be English…no one knows who he is), there is a nurse Hana who takes care of him, there is Caravaggio (a thief and a friend of Hana’s dead father), and then there is Kip (or Kirpal – a Sardar serving in the Allied army who is assigned with the task of defusing bombs).

The book primarily deals with how they all cope with their respective traumas and slowly feel strong enough to reach out to the outside world again.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

My Review

I really don’t know what to say about this book. It’s one of the most uneven books I have read in recent times.

The action (or non-action) starts out in Italy where we are introduced to all the main characters and learn a bit of each one’s back story that has led them up to this point in time.

The beginning has to be one of the most boring starts ranking right up there with Love in the Time of Cholera. The first 80 pages or so were practically unreadable. Yes, the writing is beautiful but there’s only so much scene setting that is required.

It’s only once the english patient’s back story about his life in the deserts of North Africa begins that the book truly comes into its own. These sections are brilliantly written, and more to the point actually move the story forward.

At some point, the English patient says:

Everything that ever happened to me that was important happened in the desert.

I think that’s the same way with the book. The english patient’s story is so powerful and all-consuming that somehow everyone else is rendered irrelevant. In fact, when the story switches into the present, it just loses all flavor, once more becoming lackluster.

The story becomes all the more gripping when I realize that the characters in this African section are actually loosely based on three real-life people of that time. I am not revealing any more to avoid spoilers, but when you read this book, do look up the characters in Wikipedia. Quite interesting!

Another example of the past triumphing over the present is Kip’s reminiscences about he came to be serving as a bomb diffuser in the British military. This story is also gripping, but all too quickly the scene shifts to the villa and becomes a bore.

I am trying to think through why I didn’t like the villa sections as much, and I come to the conclusion that I don’t much understand Caravaggio. His main purpose in the book, it seems, is to extract the story of the english patient. But, it seems clumsily done, and a main character whose sole purpose is to talk another character into telling a story need not have so much time devoted to him.

This is a story with only 4 main characters, and if one of them is weak, it becomes lop-sided and uneven, which is exactly what happened. There are soaring levels of brilliance along with extremely humdrum moments, and no amount of the beautiful writing could salvage the humdruminess of the humdrum portions.

Another frustrating aspect of this book is the literary quality of this book. Like I said, it’s very beautifully written, but I never felt close enough to the characters. The author’s language keeps the reader at a distance, and even though some very sad things happen during the course of this novel, I never once felt bothered or affected by it at all. Honestly, I don’t think an affecting book was the author’s intention, but to read such a lovely book without caring one whit what happens seems like a very sad thing to me.

Overall, the story of the English patient and the lost souls who tended to him is a good one. But Ondaatje takes a while to get around to telling this story, and in doing so lost me as a reader.

I read this book as part of my personal mission of reading more Man Booker prize-winning books, and I am thrilled to finally tick this off my list.

Now that I’ve read this book, I am looking forward to catching the movie sometime. It’s got so many positive reviews, I have a sneaky feeling it’s actually going to be better than the book.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Love it, hate it, or in between like me?

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  • I probably wouldn’t be able to cross the scene setting part of the book. Is there a movie too? Probably I will watch the movie then. The book seems to be too slow for my taste.

    • @Ava: I heard the movie is very good. I definitely want to watch it. Beyond the slow start, the book is very good, but the slow start killed me, or maybe I just wasn’t in a very forgiving mood.

  • Thanks for the review – I have a feeling I wouldn’t like this one as I’m not great with scene setting.

  • Ok, the book shall remain on the shelf for some more time ! Loved your review. It’s such a pleasure to read it 🙂

    • @The Glass Bangle: Thanks :), these were my feelings when I read this book. Probably my expectations were too high. It’s very well written and subtle, but I still couldn’t get into it as much as I expected

  • LOVED, LOVED the movie!!! Picked the book up because of the movie and couldnt read past the first few chapters… so boring! Did not know about being based on real characters, will look that up!!

    • @couchpapaya: I really need to see the movie now. The really lovely portions are the desert portions that feature Almasy and Katharine. I am guessing the movie focused on that story rather than the others. It’s simpler to film as well.

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  • I read The English Patient because I LOVED the movie but I had the same reaction you had to the book and mostly found it boring. I think you’ll like the movie. By the way, you may have inspired me to join the Classics Book Club. I’m working on my list. We’ll have to wait and see if I’m brave enough to make the commitment.

    • @rangercookie: Oh, great if you’d join the classics club, there is a lot of good interactions there. Also, the range of classics is quite wide. There is something for everyone.

      I am thinking this may not be a good book to read after watching the movie. All comments so far indicate the movie was superb, whereas the book takes time to get going.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting 🙂

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