[Review] The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

Title of Book: The English Patient
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
Pages: 305

With unsettling beauty and intelligence, Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II. The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.

The English Patient follows four different people, Hana, the English patient, David Caravaggio, and Kirpal Singh, who took shelter in an abandoned Italian villa near Florence. Set in 1945, the villa was recently used as a war hospital. It is abandoned after the Allied front moved north. Hana decided to stay to care for the English patient. The English patient himself is badly burned and couldn’t go anywhere. They were joined by Caravaggio and Kirpal ‘Kip’ later.

Though this book is titled the English Patient, it is not all about the English Patient. It is about these four people dealing with their past and their involvement in the war. Hana, as young as she was, instead of leaving the villa to get on with her life she chose to stay behind. She looked after the unnamed burned patient as a way to cope with her father’s death because of the war. David Caravaggio joined them later. He knew Hana since they were in Canada, way back before the war. Caravaggio was a friend of Hana’s father. He was a professional thief and a military spy. He went to Italy to look for Hana after being tortured by Nazi, injuring his hands and crushing his spirit. After a while, Kip came and joined them. He’s a Sikh sapper, whose job is to defuse bombs and mines in the area. The English patient is the one with the most curious past. Though he didn’t remember who he was or where he came from, he remembered some of his past adventures. Dosed with morphine by Caravaggio, the patient recounted his experience as the African desert explorer who fell in love with his colleague’s wife.

This book is definitely not meant to be read fast. Sometimes after a few paragraphs there will be an empty space before the next paragraph, as if there’s a pause there. To truly enjoy the reading process of this book, I feel like I need to savor every word slowly and just let the story flow. I read this book for a readathon, which is a mistake on my part. But I get why this book is so beloved. I think I will reread the English Patient again. I highly recommend this book.

They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.


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