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.
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?