The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

05 Nov

The final curtain is closing on the second world war, and Hana, a nurse, stays behind in an abandoned Italian villa to tend to her only patient.  Rescued by Bedouins from a burning plane, he is English, anonymous, damaged beyond recognition and haunted by memories of passion and betrayal.  The only clue Hana has to his past is the one thing he clung on to through the fire – a copy of The Histories by Herodotus, covered with hand written notes describing a painful and ultimately tragic love affair.

There are two things that had to happen before I read and posted this, the first, quite accidentally, is the coinciding of Bonfire Night in which a man of olden times is burnt in effigy for trying to blow politicians up and the titular character of this book who gets badly burnt in a plane crash.

The second being that I feel equipped to tackle the book now that I have read The Histories by Herodotus. Not that you must have read The Histories to get any enjoyment, it’s just that I am a completest and want nothing of interest to pass me by and as The Histories is name checked on the back cover I needed to have that in my head for satisfactions sake. So with all bases covered, I happily delved into this story of set in WWII.

Although billed as a love story, there is so much more to be had from this, bomb disposal, espionage, exploration, archaeology, art and literature are all employed to varying degrees in the text to give it more gravitas.

There is a lot to recommend about this book, it really does show the rich tapestry of life, in many forms. Naturally a lot of this book is about relationships of all kinds, family, friends, lovers et al and revolves around four intriguing characters all coping with a sense of loss for people, places and times past, that have been taken away from them by the war and all its senseless machinations.

Whilst each characters stories unfold in a whirlwind of superbly written prose, the surrounding ruins, countryside and desert mirrors the characters. The sense of a scarred, damaged, delicate landscape almost starting to help ease the protagonists into this new world that they are entering, almost helping to start the long road to recovery from the sheer continents wide devastation of lives destroyed.

As you would expect from a story embroidered in history and its importance, you are looking at a very emotionally charged creation.  A timeless tale of love in war, which is given a veneer of romance and adventure  mystery and exoticism, even managing to bring in the Libyan Desert as not only its own character but a metaphor for the characters hidden desires buried deep, as well as a plethora of other meanings.

There are a few negatives, not major ones mind, there are plenty of flashbacks and abrupt cut offs between characters and plot threads, so to begin with it may not the easiest to orientate too but after a few pages it’s easy to get into the groove, even if it makes it no less mildly irritating.  At least one character doesn’t seem to have quite the depth to match the others which is unfortunate but doesn’t detract from the story at all.  Surprisingly neither does the ending which I found a bit loose but happily just gave me more to ponder on in a wider sense of the aftermath of war for the real people who survived.

After years of evading romance in books the last few years have shown me the depths of what I have been missing and enriching my literary appreciation. So whilst this isn’t up to the passionate love affairs of Latin American authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, it’s still a very good and emotive journey through war time and all its anguish and profundity.


Posted by on 05/11/2012 in Fiction


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21 responses to “The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

  1. aliceatwonderland

    05/11/2012 at 19:50

    My mother has seen the movie and loved it (not sure if she read the book – probably, she is a voracious reader.) Have you seen the movie and if so, what did you think?


    • StetotheJ

      06/11/2012 at 19:14

      I haven’t seen the movie, I’m always reticent about films that involve characters with lots of internal strife as films have to portray that for an audience where as the book can always do a better job without resorting to visual tactics for the audience. I shall probably give it a blast at some point though, although Bedknobs and Broomsticks is next on the agenda for my viewing pleasure.


      • aliceatwonderland

        06/11/2012 at 20:20

        I know what you mean about portraying inner turmoil. I read The Firm and then watched the movie. A lot of the tension in that book takes place in the guy’s head, so there were all these close ups of Tom Cruise. Yeah, didn’t do it for me.


        • StetotheJ

          07/11/2012 at 06:31

          Close ups of Tom Cruise will always put a dampener on your day, I find. When it comes to actors either sticking in a monologue or doing dramatic expressions to portray their inner feelings I always feel disappointed. It lacks the richness and immediacy of book reading and takes me out of a film. It’s my own fault for being a ‘book purist’, still it’s a burden I must bear and bear with pleasure.


  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    06/11/2012 at 06:50

    Great review, I like the way you invoke the landscape into the description of the characters, that was something I thought was so well done in the film too, the images really draw the us in, plot was no longer important.


    • StetotheJ

      06/11/2012 at 19:22

      I just watched a trailer for the film and it does look visually impressive. It’s intriguing how plot sometimes can be pushed into the background when a powerful visual image is created. I found that in The Road, the book, I haven’t seen the film as of yet. I really do need to watch these films. I somehow feel i am missing out.


      • Claire 'Word by Word'

        07/11/2012 at 06:53

        I remember when the English Patient film came out, there was a lot of hype and then it was very criticised for not living up to it, so I didn’t see it for a long time and then eventually in a small cinema with about 6 people, all the hype long gone, and I was just carried away by it, no longer necessary to talk about it, and having low but curious expectations I guess elevates the experience. I have long since learned my experience is never that of the critics.

        Cormac McCarthy is one of my favourite writers and The Road will be my next venture there, he can take you anywhere and make you adore his use of language.


        • StetotheJ

          08/11/2012 at 17:05

          A cinema with that few people in it sounds like bliss. It’s the best way to watch or read anything though, without any sort of hype. I consistently avoid any hype where I can unless it is something that I absolutely need to know about. You are right about the low expectations, I tend to always try and play anything down to get maximum enjoyment and surprise out of things.

          McCarthy needs to add a few speech marks just to keep his grammatically pedantic readers happy. The tone and atmosphere of The Road are wonderful. Such a bleak thing should never make one happy but somehow it just does.


  3. LuAnn

    06/11/2012 at 18:47

    Am I right in thinking that this was made into a movie? I believe I have seen the movie so I most definitely should be reading the book. Thanks SteJ. 🙂


    • StetotheJ

      06/11/2012 at 19:17

      It was indeed a movie and a very popular one I hear too. From reading reviews the book and film don’t differ to much except for the film giving greater emphasis to certain parts. It is a good read with lots of depth though, although I would recommend Marquez more, if you fancy dramatic Latin tempestuous emotions.


      • LuAnn

        08/11/2012 at 04:13

        Thanks for the tip. I love your book reviews. You should be getting paid to do this if it is not already your life’s work. 🙂


        • StetotheJ

          08/11/2012 at 16:59

          That would be the perfect job, I am hoping that one day I will be paid for it. Nothing would be more perfect for me. Ah! The dreams…..


  4. letizia

    07/11/2012 at 19:18

    I saw the movie so I’m worried that it’s ruined the reading experience of the book for me now. Hmm, not sure what to do now. Maybe I’ll give it a go nonetheless. The movie is not bad – overly sentimental but worth seeing for the visual beauty of some of the scenes (try to see it on a large-ish screen if possible).


    • StetotheJ

      08/11/2012 at 17:01

      The book seems less sentimental, I would be interested to see the film, from what I can gather reading film reviews and listening to people on here, there are different takes on where the emphasis of feeling and on events should be. I would assume they would make great companion pieces, possibly part of the fun is not knowing though?


  5. pennycoho

    10/11/2012 at 03:26

    SteJ a wonderful review. I haven’t seen the film so cannot comment on that but I think you gave the book a pretty fair shake all things considered. I found it an interesting if not “thrilling” book, but it’s amazing how many people reference the movie isn’t it?


    • StetotheJ

      10/11/2012 at 14:17

      It is an easier medium to go by, I can imagine the music can have an emotive effect as well but I prefer the sombreness of the book, I got a deep sense of loss for almost everything mentioned. I like that better, we all take something different from the same words, whereas I would suppose the film, although i haven’t seen it, would tend to push everyone to one point of view.


      • pennycoho

        10/11/2012 at 19:17

        I’m thinking you are correct on that. Whereas in a book, it becomes by extension your world and your intrepretive ending! Yes.


        • StetotheJ

          11/11/2012 at 09:37

          I knew you would agree, I like my material subjective, it makes for more interesting chats and arguments, then we get to explore all manner of alternate viewpoints and it makes the whole experience richer.


          • pennycoho

            11/11/2012 at 15:41

            indubitably, absolutely and completely (lots of -ly’s)lol!


  6. The Writing Waters Blog

    18/05/2014 at 20:23

    I heard Ondaatje speak at an event and he was a more gracious, sociable person than I expected. I know I took notes, wish I could find them. I agree with what you wrote to a person above that complex characters usually don’t come across on the screen and they become lost in a Hollywoodized story.


    • Ste J

      19/05/2014 at 17:17

      Hollywood ruins so much these days…I tend not to pay much attention to the author which is probably criminal but I just live in the book…like when you see an actor from a programme you love in another production, I hate to be taken out of the fantasy.



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