July 28, 2017

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient by Michael OndaatjeBefore I say anything else about The English Patient – I haven’t seen the film – so I’m coming at it from a “pure” point of view. (might have to watch it now though!).

The book has 4 key characters:

  • Hana the nurse
  • The English patient
  • Caravaggio the thief and spy
  • Kip the sapper

Having now finished the book – I’m not sure which one of them it’s about. Hence I’m intrigued to watch the film to see if that makes it any clearer for me.

It’s also a tough review to write because it’s difficult to not reveal a plot twist, or anything key whilst still explaining a bit about the book.

So the novel is set in a villa in rural Italy just as the second world war is coming to an end. Each of the characters is slowly added to the mix, and even more slowly reveal who they are to each other and to the reader. I do like that about the book, you definitely get the sense of how at that point in time a lot of people had lost themselves and didn’t know how to define themselves. It’s quite an otherworldly setting / set of experiences; a group of people hiding from the end of the war.

It takes a surprisingly long time for them to start talking to each other (in any meaningful way). About half way through the book we leave the tale of the four inhabitants of the villa and take a journey to before the war and the reminiscences of the English patient. Spending some time in the African deserts with him as he maps it and his involvement with the Geographical Society. There’s some great detail here, and then all of a sudden we’re learning about his affair with a colleague’s wife – Kathryn.

After this point in the book Caravaggio comes up with a theory about the identify of the English patient (he’s burned beyond recognition, and doesn’t seem to know who he is). So he starts trying to unravel the truth – which leads to some quite impressive methadone useage.

We now switch to learning about Kip and his fascinating history learning about bomb disposal in England. A detailed and heartful story.

Then it’s back to the villa for a mad game of hide and seek (must re-read this bit as I think I may have missed something important), that leads to more methadone and a really interesting section where Caravaggio and the English patient get wasted together (sorry but that’s what they do) and we find our about the EP’s past.

The book ends many years later with Kip in his new life reminiscing about what the others might have ended up doing.

I think I’m going to pondering The English Patient for some time – it’s a strange mix of the obtuse, fanciful, harsh and technical – that somehow works really well.

I’d definitely recommend this one.

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