For some very strange reason I have got four copies of The English Patient at home . It seems that whenever a member of my family is abroad and raid a bookstore it crops up in the pile. To complicate matters my own personal copy was bought because the library I have at home is in total disarray ( although now I have alphabetized all the fiction, hence me discovering all those titles) and I couldn’t find the older versions. Ah well one can one do??
The book takes place during 1946 Italy and the war is over, However in a disused hospital a Canadian nurse (the daughter of a character in Ondaatje’s The Skin of a Lion), Hana is taking care of a badly scarred man, whom she calls The English Patient.
A while later her family friend, a spy called Caravaggio turns up with the news of Hana’s family in Canada. To complement the crowd a Sikh sapper called Kip shows up on the premises as he is on a mission to defuse all mines around Italy.
All four characters have a hefty background history and throughout the novel we get bits and pieces of their past and weirdly enough all lives are interconnected through war. Ondaatje’s lays the clues all around so when each tidbit of information is revealed, the characters become more tangible, and human in the process. Also each character falls in love with Hana, with Kip being the recipient to the more physical aspect of Hana.
Just as war brings them together, it tears them apart. When Kip hears news of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings he feels that he has been betrayed by the Caucasian nation and escapes to India. The novel ends with a brief glance of Hana and Kip in their mid thirties.
The previous Ondaatje that I have read was .. Skin of a lion, a novel which I enjoyed immensely (and Anil’s Ghost – which I found ok) but this takes writing to another level. Passages of sheer beauty constantly occur and the raw emotions of the characters jump out of the pages. Not to mention a plot which unfolds slowly but ends in a very satisfying way.
I always find it very difficult to conclude these blog entries without retreating to usual clichés like ‘read this’ or ‘A book which resonates right after you read it’ but honestly I don’t know what to say as it is indeed a book that you must read, no qualms about it!