Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient

Rating: 3.5/5.0

The English Patient was not specifically one of those book that I planned to read and finally got around to. I just happened to come upon it on one of my second-hand bookstore adventures. This one is a cute little hole in the wall along Kingston Road at the Beaches in Toronto called The Great Escape Book Store. Canadian author Michael Ondaatje was a familiar enough name, but the book I had not heard of before. So, I paid the requisite “got it for a steal!” price and tucked it away on my shelf for a later read. When I finally got around to it, I was mildly pleased that I had picked it up.

This book  opens in a villa in Italy during the final legs of World War II. Our leading lady is Hana, a Canadian nurse, our leading man it would seem, her English patient. Hana spends her days tending to her patient who is severely burned and confined to a bed. A quarter of the way through this book, Hana is joined by a friend of her father’s, David Caravaggio, a Canadian thief, and about a half of the way into the book, a British sapper for the Allied Forces, Kip (Kirpal Singh). The foursome make a very odd troupe of companions living day-to-day in a mine-infested village.

Ondaatje begins with poetic nuances that captivate the poet within you. He makes fluid the most unnatural comparisons, making you conceded to the validity of his comparisons. His words flow like an elixir of beauty in our brain chemicals. The first third of the book follows through with patchworks of history and fiction loosely following each other, as if chronology and order are the furthest from his mind, his mind caught in a rhapsody of poetic euphoria, of sensual imagery so seductive you are moved to your baser desires for beauty and wonder. There is the dry second third that you will find yourself braving because of an expectation that the final third will be a delivery of enormous mental engagement, and you will not be disappointed. Ondaatje holds his reader captive and then releases the flood of the story, the climax and the suspense, the enigma that is the Enlgish patient and the periphery that are Caravaggio, Hana and Kip.

Being a novice reader of Ondaatje, I was impressed with his level of detail around the intricacies of making and disarming bombs and the life of a Sapper in World War II (a sapper being a mechanical engineer that detected and disarmed bombs, something new I learned as well) among other things. His attention to detail and his ability to weave poetry into his metaphors are indeed praise-worthy. I particularly enjoyed how he appealed to all of my senses in the setup of his metaphors. The final third of the book really opens up to reveal a magnetic storyline that the first two halves have been building towards. At this point the English patient is the enigma that the reader discovers to be more than meets the eye. Hana and Kip revel in their own story as if the rest of the world were suspended in the balance. Caravaggio is the addition to the tale, as if an afterthought necessary to only move along the action so it does not seem too clichéd when Hana or Kip do it.

However, it is not all praise for The English Patient, because the organization of events wracks up a little confusion in its attempt to offer the reader the opportunity to feel intrigued. The second third of the book, as I called “dry” before, made the work wanting in the consistency of aspired greatness. It was a struggle to forge through this section, but as with all my reading, I am committed to finish once I begin, and again with this one I did. Despite winning the Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award in 1992, I couldn’t find myself agreeing with the respective panels that came to these award decisions. Nevertheless, The English Patient was still a worthwhile read.

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