The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

englishpatientEarlier 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.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on April 27, 2016, in Book Reviews, Man Booker Prize, Sri Lankan authors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. I love this novel. The words deepen into my soul.

  2. I haven’t read the book but you had me sold on your very last sentence!

  3. #JustThinking: wouldn’t it be horrible to have to write a review to prove that the book should be hated?! I mean, I say what I think about a book and if I don’t like it I say so. But to set out from the beginning with the intention of writing a negative review would be a soul-destroying task, I think.

    • Just so. I’ve written some negative reviews of course but never set out to totally trash a book. I can’t see the point because if it was truly that bad I wouldn’t have finished it

  4. Ondaatje is an author I keep meaning to read! You have encouraged me to move this one up on my list. It’s always so cool to see such divergent reactions among readers to the same book! 🙂

  5. Thank you. I’m not surprised you won – that is an extremely enrolling review and it has had the effect of making me look for it on my shelves. I’ve never read it but it’s been there for years.

  6. I love the idea of the “Love it or Hate it” feature. I ended up browsing through a few of them. As for this one, I thought “dog’s breakfast” sounded a bit harsh. Especially as he went on to say that the writing was good.
    I haven’t read this one yet, but plan to sometime -the ‘hate-it’ reviewer didn’t put me off. What did you think about what he said about the racism? Do you agree?

    • it is indeed an interesting idea especially where the book is one that significantly divides opinion. as for the racism, I wasn’t as conscious of that aspect as the other reviewer clearly was.

  7. I haven’t read this book (or seen the movie!) but love the concept of going head-to-head on a book.

  8. Yes, I really enjoyed this book. I loved Kip too, and I loved the Italy hospital scenes. Kip and the hospital scenes are the strongest for me – still very vivid. The second part of the novel not so. I can understand people seeing it as disconnected, but I loved his writing so much that it didn’t really bother me. I read it long before blogging though.

  9. I’ve had The English Patient on my shelves for years now and one of my best friends tell me I will love it but somehow I never feel as though reading it is urgent. Someday I will. And I know I will enjoy it. Maybe I’m trying to delay the enjoyment.

  10. Having been thoroughly put off by the film – and I know many people will be lining up to tell me it’s their favourite – I loved the book.

    • It’s so long ago that I saw the film I’ve forgotten completely what I thought of it. I’m nervous now about getting it again in case it spoils the book

  11. Thanks for the review. Having read it, I might now pluck up courage and give it a try. I don’t know why, but I’ve put off reading the book for years … can’t explain, an irrational block of some sort.

    • I have some of those mental blocks too Alison. Mine was another Booker winner, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. I hadn’t done well with other titles by her so was thinking this would be in the same vein. But I was completely wrong and thoroughly enjoyed it.

  12. I loved this book as well. It’s been such a long time since I read it, but your eloquent summary of its strengths brings it rushing right back to me. A novel I hope to revisit one day.

  13. Like many I loved the movie, but am not sure I got around to reading any Ondaatje novels. Maybe the next one…

    • I’ve read only one other – the cat’s table – which was an interesting study in different characters though much less emotionally engaging than the English Patient

  14. I do love this book though it’s a close tie with In the Skin of the Lion for my favourite Ondaatje. He is one of the relatively few Canadian writers I adore. Like you, Kip is my favourite. If anything disappointed me in the film it was that his character does not come through with as much impact as in the novel. There is a scene where he is dismantling a live bomb that is some of the most suspenseful, charged writing I have ever read.

    • I picked up The Skin of the Lion in a second hand shop last year, not really knowing anything about it other than it was Ondaatje and I liked his writing. so now you’ve made me itch to open it……Oh gosh yes that scene you mention made me hold my breath just in case breathing too much set the trigger off

  15. Try as I might, I just don’t understand people who don’t love this book.
    I think The English Patient is an enchantment. My (less perceptive) review is here but I don’t need to re-read it to remember the magic of reading this book. It’s one of those that always conjures fond memories in my head and my heart.

    • I chortled when I read your comment that your review lacked depth of insight, as if you would ever write a review that lacked in that regard. Having loved this book so much I also got to wondering that Sacred Hunger must be equally special if it shared the prize

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