The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

Book #156

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published 2008)

Finally I have managed to make my way through a book that, by Booker panel adjudication, is a worthy read.
Many, many years ago I went to the movies and saw Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-winning adaptation.  I believe it won 9 golden statues in total.  Sadly, all these years later, I can barely remember much about it.  Apparently it wasn’t earth-shattering in my world.   Now, having read the book I feel the urge to go back and see the film.  I have strong suspicions that Ralph Fiennes (eye-candy value aside) and Kristin Scott-Thomas may have been mis-cast.  Still, I’ll withhold judgement until such time as I rent the movie.

So, the book.

I am a little bit out of practice in reading interesting novels, so please cut me some slack on my minimalist review and probable obtuse comments regarding the underlying themes of the novel.

This is a tale of woe before and during WWII.  Four people come together at the Villa San Girolamo in Italy as the war in Europe comes to a close.  The English Patient, who appears to have lost his memory and is badly burned in an aeroplane crash in the deserts of North Africa; Hana, a young Canadian nurse who has lost a baby and her father during the war; Caravaggio, a thief and spy who has his thumbs cut off by the Germans and knows Hana from their previous life in Canada; and Kip, a young Sikh who is working his way through Italy defusing bombs, booby traps and other nasty devices while blocking out the harsh reality of the personal and professional loss being a sapper brings.

The writing style is quirky, and disjointed, but you get used to it very quickly.  As the book moves on it gets easier to follow and it stops you from getting too bored with what is a particularly simple story about relationships.  The ‘trick’ of this novel is the way in which the author chooses to tell us about those relationships.
Ondaatje chooses to release small snippets of information at a time.  We get to know the characters at a leisurely pace, and without cramming masses of details into each passage.  It is a very relaxing novel in that sense.  You have time to think about everyone’s story and what brings them to the point we join them at the Villa.  This can be quite hard going for those of us (no fingers pointed at Ms O, of course) who are used to reading books crammed with detail, forcing as much in to 300 pages as is humanly possible and treating their readers as though they have no imagination.  (Ooo, was I just scathing about most of the chick-lit and trashy reading I’ve been doing lately?)

Anyway.
I agree with the Amazon reviewers who gave it a 4 out of 5 rating.
Personally I would have to give it a 2.5 or 3.  I understand you may be confused by this double rating, so here’s my explanation.
Even though I didn’t find it a 4 star read, I know that it is.  This is the danger of reading candy floss books.  They can block your ability to appreciate the art of storytelling, especially if you get caught up in ‘instantaneous gratification’ mode and want things laid out in front of you at top speed, preferably without distracting things like interesting prose and unusual imagery.  Having read this novel, I now find myself feeling the need to check-in to junk fiction rehab.   Is it possible to get the DTs in a novel-reading sense?  I’m beginning to think it is.

Mr Ondaatje really has an eye for unusual phrasing and beautiful sounding words. So here are some that I thought worthy of noting down.

Imagery:

  • Dust coagulating
  • The paranoia and claustrophobia of hidden love.

Words:

  • autodidact
  • burnoose
  • antiphonal
  • propinquity
  • fata morgana


Also on an historical note, the descriptions of the bombs and how many there were, was quite an eye-opener.
The names for them: Hermann, Esau, Satans.
The number of them: 2,500 unexploded bombs in August of the blitz, 3,700 by September.
The insanity of the mine-laying:

The scale of the laying of mines in Italy and in North Africa cannot be imagined.  At the Kismaayo-Afmadu road junction, 260 mines were found.  There were 300 at the Omo River Bridge area.  On June 30, 1941, South African sappers laid 2,700 Mark 11 mines in Mersa Matruh in one day.  Four months later the British cleared Mersa Matruh of 7,806 mines and placed them elsewhere.

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