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4.0 out of 5 stars
A review of `The English Patient', 15 Dec 2010
The English Patient is the third novel written by Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje. It is similar to his previous two novels in that the story is based around actual historical events. Michael Ondaatje is recognised for his works of historical fiction and The English Patient could be seen as one of his best pieces given that he received The Booker Prize for Fiction as a result of his endeavour.
I first picked up the book with the belief that it would simply be a novel about the Second World War, an area of literature in which I have a keen interest, but as I began to read I discovered that I was very mistaken. The English Patient is a story about four people and how their lives become gradually intertwined during the final months of World War II. Ondaatje's gradual layering of detail within his writing accompanied by a fair amount of ambiguity makes the beginning of the novel feel bare and almost desolate. This could have been a literary decision made by the author in order to create a sense of isolation that is clearly present for Hana and her patient in the Italian villa. However, I did find the first twelve pages a little tedious.
After battling through the first two chapters I found the experience to be a far more rewarding one. I enjoyed the slow pace of Ondaatje's writing and how this encourages the reader absorb the details of the story and the characters slowly; it was a lovely change of tempo to the thrillers that I am accustomed to devouring. For me it also added to the idea of being left behind. A feeling that is clear within the four main characters: Hana and her patient left behind by the nurses and medics, Kip, a solitary Indian sapper and Caravaggio, an ex-British spy who suffers greatly at the hands of the Nazis.
The non-linear story line and the changes in the narrative can be confusing and at first I did struggle, having to re-read a few paragraphs towards the beginning of the book, but as the past and the present became clear I really began to enjoy this book. It is a striking and carefully sculpted piece of literature about four people who are as mysterious as they are engaging and their relationships and interactions are even more intriguing. My only real complaint is that the ending is fairly open-ended and I did not feel like there was any great closure to the story. However, The English Patient is a brilliant novel and an excellent flagship for the works of Michael Ondaatje.