Thursday, February 7, 2019

Book Review - "The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje

This was a slow read. I had a hard time following the jumbled timelines and trying to connect with the main characters. I know many of my Goodreads friends loved the poetic writing. But it didn’t work for me. I picked this up expecting to read a war novel with an engaging plot and well developed and relatable characters, and found myself reading an epic, meandering and prolix narrative poem instead.

Four people of different nationalities are thrown together by chance at a Tuscan villa towards the end of World War II. The Englishman is badly burned from a plane crash and is dying. The Canadian nurse Hana, who could have gone with other hospital nurses to the safer north, decides to stay to nurse him. A Sikh sapper Kip does his life-threatening job of defusing mined bombs around the villa. An Italian-Canadian thief and spy Caravaggio, who is a buddy of Hana’s father’s, comes to persuade Hana to leave the dangerous place. Kip falls in love with Hana despite his suspicion of white Europeans. Caravaggio identifies the English patient as the pro-German Hungarian desert explorer.

Each character has a poignant backstory which, when revealed, sheds light on his/her present state of mind. The English patient once had a steamy love affair with a British intelligence agent’s wife, which resulted in the husband’s suicide-murder attempt that killed the wife; Hana had an aborted child and was devastated by her father’s death from serious burns; Kip lost a dear British friend and coach who was killed while defusing a bomb; Caravaggio had his thumbs severed as punishment for stealing photo shots of German officers.

The plot was not a bad one, but the way it was executed, the suspense was much diluted, and the characters, with the exception of the Sikh (Kip), failed to strike a chord.

Interspersed throughout the novel is technical information about cartography and desert oases and bomb defusing, which I didn’t find interesting.

I’m giving this novel 3 stars. 

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