Earlier in the year The Readers’ Room asked me to take part in their Love It or Hate It feature where two readers go head to head on a book. I threw my weight behind Michael Ondaatje’s Booker winning novel The English Patient. Here’s my attempt at convincing people to read this book.
If you enjoy story arcs that don’t take you direct from A to Z, you’ll appreciate The English Patient. If you prefer character studies to action-fuelled dramas, this is the book for you. If you’re keen on hearing the voices of multiple narrators, this is certainly one you’ll savour. If you’re excited when all those stylistic approaches come together in one book and you love novels that pulse with emotion and meaning, you will relish The English Patient. Reading it is to experience a master storyteller at work. Ondaatje gives us four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. The villa is their refuge and a place where they hope to heal their wounds. But the dangers of the outside world are forever present. Kip searches every day for hidden explosives and trip wires around the property only to discover that more catastrophic destabilising forces lie far on the other side of the world. Ultimately none of these people can escape the reality of who they are. It’s a tale of healing and renewal, of nationality and identity, and of belonging and isolation told through beautifully constructed prose. It’s a story that deserves to be read slowly to get the full benefit of Ondaatje’s descriptive powers and depth of understanding of human nature. For me it’s one of the stand out Booker Prize winners, a novel that has stayed in my mind long after I got to the final page.
I won the vote. But only by a whisker. Most of the comments came from people who agreed with my ‘opponent’ who described The English Patient as “a dog’s breakfast” of a novel where coincidences are piled on top of coincidences.
I’ll accept that the disconnected narrative could be disconcerting for some readers but I’m surprised to find that people considered the text ‘flat’. I thought it beautifully paced, each chapter taking me deeper and deeper into the characters of the four people who see the Italian villa as a place of refuge, a place to heal their wounds after the ravages of war and a love affair which ended in tragedy.
For me the stand out character is Kip, a young Sikh bomb disposal expert who’s made his way through Italy trying to prevent explosions, risking his life over and over again to detonate bombs. As he wades through a freezing river or hangs suspended in a church vault, it is the faces seen in the paintings of the grand masters that sustain him.
The young Sikh sapper put his cheek against the mud and thought of the Queen of Sheba’s face, the texture of her skin. There was no comfort in the river except for his desire for her, which somehow kept him warm. He would pull the veil off her hair. He would put his right hand between her neck and olive blouse. He too was tired and sad, as the wise king and guilty queen he had seen in Arezzo two weeks earlier.
He hung over the water, his hands locked into the mudbank. Character, that subtle art, disappeared among them during those days and nights, existed only in a book or on a painted wall.
Bereft of all human comfort Kip seeks solace in the arms of these mythical figures, creeping at night into churches to sleep huddled in the marble embrace of a statue. With Hannah, the nurse at the villa, he at last finds love.
This is a book to savour, allowing the full force of Ondaatjee’s often subtle prose to reveal itself slowly but unforgettably.