Top critical review
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on 25 April 2015
This is a book which leaves you in no doubt that it is a Good Book. That you are in the presence of Fine Writing. And the phrase 'beautifully written' will, I'm sure, be in almost every review you can find of it. Yes, there are passages in here which stop you dead, making you stare into the middle distance, taking them in and seeing something - an action, a movement, a scene, an object - so perfectly, so powerfully in your mind - even if you may never have actually sen them before.
So there's that, and that's good. But that's poetry. In a novel you need more. You need characters people can relate to, you need a reality which people can inhabit, you need to want to know what happens next. In these areas, Ondaatje is far weaker. When he isn't in the business of summoning, he is actually quite a bit weaker. The main problem is that everyone acts and talks as if they are in a literary novel, delivering crafted sentences and forever immersed in their emotional and moral worlds, weighed down with gravitas and profundity. The English Patient is the very definition of the Literary novel, the very book people who don't read much literary fiction imagine it to be and the very book most people imagine a Booker winner to be and this, for me, is as much a genre novel as a crime thriller. You can basically play Literary Bingo with this: mysterious back story, unreliable narrator, intertextuality, symbolic prose style and so on and on. Lives cannot be this profound all the time, people would simply kill themselves with the pregnant weight of it all.
However, the feeling of place is amazing; you can sit in one chair for one afternoon and read the whole book and completely disappear into that old villa. You will be in its gloomy, abandoned rooms, in its crumbling gardens and dishevelled library for all of this time, transported to a remarkably clear place and time.
In short then, immaculate stage set, head-shakingly good writing, cloying literariness, not actually that much fun page-by-page.
Still though, those sand dunes......