Book Review: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje Title: The English Patient
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0679745204
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 305
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

There are books that one reads and remembers a little of and then forgets. There are books that one reads and instantly forgets. There are then those books that one reads and can never forget. Those are the kind of books that I want to read and talk about. Because may be somewhere down the line in life, there is no place for bad or mediocre books. These days reading the first chapter is enough to tell you that and for me that is the deciding factor most of the time. However, there are those books which have been parts of your life throughout and you just invariably go back to them again and again. “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje is one such book in my life.

“The English Patient” takes place when the World War II has just about ended. The troops are returning home – broken or fixed or just as a consequence of the end of the war. This story is of four people – damaged and broken, living in an Italian villa as the war ends and the world changes around them. They ruminate on the past, links are drawn, relationships are renewed and they all somehow are just looking for redemption. At the heart of the book’s title, is literally, a patient, unknown to the three others, whose face is disfigured and he lays all day on the bed. Hana, the emotionally wounded army nurse who will not leave the patient alone and therefore has decided to stay in the villa. There is Caravaggio – the thief and spy, a friend of Hana’s father, who is drawn to Hana in many ways and has a past with the patient as well. Last but not the least is Kip – the brooding and detached Indian sapper, who loves Hana with all his heart and struggles to make sense of it.

All three of them are united to each other by the patient. Who is he? Where is he from? What is his history? Such questions and many intricate plots make this book what it is – a masterpiece at that. The sub-plot of the patient is my most favourite part in the entire book. His love affair with a married woman (cliché as it may sound) and its doom breaks the reader’s heart all over again. There is more to his story which I will not giveaway here. You obviously have to read it to know.

There is a lot of angst in the book and I can only trust Ondaatje with his superlative writing skills to display it with precision and great skill. The lines are almost poetic in nature. The setting is almost surreal. With every page you turn, you can only anticipate what is to come next and when it does, it takes your breath away. Of course the movie is different from the book and that is why I recommend that your reading and viewing pleasure should not be compared. I also love the way the movie has been made. Reading this book is almost like a dream-like experience. It is almost a feeling of déjà vu and yet you want to keep carrying on. The passages string together a tale of love, sadness, madness and as I said redemption. Each of Ondaatje’s character is searching for something or seeking forgiveness. The force of his writing lies in the lyrical quality of the narrative. The writing at most levels is spare, which I wish could have been longer.

The book will capture your heart and soul and not let go. This was the fifth read for me and every time I read this book, I cry. May be also because this copy was gifted to me by someone who once loved. I come out of a trance-like experience and I am only sad that the experience has ended. I cannot recommend this enough. And yes, there is only this much life left. Go on and read good books while you are at it. And while I am at it, here are some of my favourite parts of the book:

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.”

“I believe this. When we meet those we fall in love with, there is an aspect of our spirit that is historian, a bit of a pedant who reminisces or remembers a meeting when the other has passed by innocently…but all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur.”

“She had grown older. And he loved her more now than he had loved her when he understood her better, when she was the product of her parents. What she was now was what she herself had decided to become.”

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