Callista 's Reviews > The English Patient

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
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Sep 04, 12

bookshelves: literature-esd, contemp-pop-fiction
Read from August 30 to September 03, 2012

** spoiler alert ** This has been on my to-read list since the late '90s, but I hadn't made it a high priority, somewhat intimidated by things I'd heard. There's a vague memory of one of my more readerly friends warning me not to read it, deeming it impossible. I haven't gotten around to watching the film, either. But lately, I've been going to the library and browsing the shelves (instead of going with a particular book in mind and getting disappointed if it's checked out), and I decided to finally pick this up. Having a deadline for reading it also helped get me in gear.
It's obvious that the author was first a poet. The book is more like a long prose poem than a conventional novel. Some of the turns of phrase, the descriptions are beautiful and lyrical. Some of it is vague and cryptic. Overall, the effect is quite nice. I can also see why they wanted to turn it into a film, as there's a cinematic quality to settings and story.
I have a quibble I may as well list here. It isn't that I object to the word in question; I use it, but it's a matter of context. This is the fourth literary- fiction-type writer I have seen who assembles careful constructions of words in the narrative, only to use the word "shit" instead of one more appropriate to the tone, such as "excrement." It just seems like a malfunction of imagination. It would be different if it were in dialogue.
Anyway, back to the other aspects of the novel. The story drew me in more than I expected, and it was a pretty quick read. Kip, the army bomb expert, was the only character I really liked. I enjoyed the way his view of the world was depicted, especially his fascination with art. The sequences about defusing bombs were gripping. His reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima was very intense and made total sense. I didn't dislike Hana the nurse, the English patient, or Caravaggio the thief; but they felt less like real people than Kip did. I felt sort of sorry for Hana, but she was rather ghostly in her apparent PTSD. I would've liked to have seen more about Caravaggio and his adventures. The English patient himself was an object of pity in some ways and a sphinx in others. I liked the story of his affair with Katharine the least of all the plot threads; it didn't come across as true love or passion, more like misery with sex. The only part of it that seemed anything like love was what the man went through to try to help her after her husband's freakout, then later to recover her body. While her slow, painful death was terrible, I could never like Katharine as a person; she was too sullen, mercurial, and demanding--but where a woman might see a shrew, a man might see a passionate and enigmatic challenge, I suppose.
I can handle open-ended conclusions, but this left too much unresolved at the end. I was happy to find out what happened to Kip; but the novel began with Hana and the English patient, and we got only a vague idea of where Hana went and nothing at all definitive about the English patient. Did Hana ever really recover from what she'd seen? Did Caravaggio shoot the English patient or did he just eventually die of his burns? What happened to Caravaggio? Did he and Hana ever see each other again? I wanted to know more.
But overall, a pretty good read. It feels like a bit of an accomplishment to check it off the list.
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08/31/2012 page 80
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message 1: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Hartley i loved the film, is the book worth a read, even though ive seen the film?


Callista And I haven't seen the film! The author was first a poet, and that definitely shows in the way he writes prose. And I can see why they wanted to make the story into a film. I don't know if that answer helps at all. :)


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