Literary Award Winners Fiction Book Club discussion

The English Patient
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Past Reads > The English Patient through the End

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Tamara (tamaracat) | 155 comments Mod
Discuss through the end.


message 2: by Cat (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cat | 28 comments I just finished reading The English Patient. I found it very unsatisfying, reading it with a traditional lens, looking for characterization, plot, and conflict. However, I found it satisfying in another way, by just sinking into the language, and trusting the author to deliver something valuable if I stuck with it. Ondaatje does introduce a plot around page 150, if you can make it that far. I also began to care about the characters at that point.

At least Ondaatje seems aware of the weirdness of his book. "Many books open with an author's assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle." This is the kind of book I was expecting. "But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat." This is what reading The English Patient was like for me. Chaos, hesitation.

The English patient urges Hana to read Rudyard Kipling "slowly dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses...Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise." When I got to this piece of advice, I felt that Ondaatje was telling me how to read his book. I slowed down. I began to savor description. I stopped looking for plot and character. And when I stopped looking, he finally delivered on the plot.

Later, Caravaggio and Hana dance to a song that is described this way: "The phrasing so slow, so drawn out, she could sense the musician did not wish to leave the small parlour of the introduction and enter the song, kept wanting to remain there, where the story had not yet begun, as if enamored by a maid in the prologue" (109). Again, Ondaatje is describing his own work, his own reluctance to allow the story to begin.

Ondaatje admits at the end that Hana "is a woman I don't know well enough to hold in my wing, if writers have wings, to harbor for the rest of my life" (301). I felt that Hana was two dimensional, hard to understand. It seems that Ondaatje would agree.

Finally, here are a couple of quotes that I loved.

"What was wonderful was that even within the drunkenness of two a.m., each of you somehow recognized the more permanent worth and pleasure of the other. You may have arrived with others, will perhaps cohabit this night with others, but both of you have found your fates."

"We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead...We are communal histories, communal books."


message 3: by Cat (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cat | 28 comments By the way, shout out to anybody else who actually finished this book. I have some kind of Puritan work ethic. A book has to be really really bad for me to put it down, which is why I'm picky about what I start (which is why I like to know it won some kind of award or critical praise before I start it!)


Sarah (sarahcw) Thanks, Cat, for your thoughtful comments. I liked what you said about how the English Patient was explaining how this book should be read. Here is what I am wondering: Is this book actually about how it is easy to fall in love with - but much harder to stick with and understand - other cultures, or people from other cultures? Spoiler alert!!! Stop if you haven't finished. (view spoiler)


message 5: by Cat (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cat | 28 comments Interesting point about how the book might be about initial attraction and how hard it is to sustain that. The exotic element of another culture and when you learn it, you are no longer so interested. I loved what you said about (view spoiler)


Laurajean (laurajeanc-w) I appreciate your comments as well, Cat. Finished this one last week and enjoyed it immensely. I find it a book I can dip into at any point and just savor for its beautiful writing.


Pierre | 3 comments I enjoyed the book. I found the writing to be haunting and beautiful. The characters seemed to me to represent the tragedies and ambiguities of war. They were all broken people in some way. The war brought them together, and these people who under other circumstances would never meet find themselves with one another. In a way, the war evened out their pasts, perhaps dulled or erased them, and enabled them to connect. I am trying not to be specific to not give too much of the story, but I think there is a lot of depth to this story and it's characters.


Rick Patterson | 35 comments Tamara wrote: "Discuss through the end."

I agree with Cat that Ondaatje seems to care more about the language--the poetry--than he does about characterization. I've waded through this novel twice now and feel I have to give it just one more shot to discover what the noise is all about. I confess that I appreciated the movie version a lot more than the novel, at least first time around.


message 9: by Mark (new)

Mark Vickers Cat wrote, "I found it satisfying in another way, by just sinking into the language, and trusting the author to deliver something valuable if I stuck with it."

I had a similar experience. The poetry of this book is profoundly satisfying to me. It's the rare novelist who can sustain such beauty. In the end, I think it's this memory of this poetry rather than the plot itself I'll remember.


Sarah (sarahcw) Mark wrote: " the poetic language almost covers the story in a blanket of snow, making it harder to see but perhaps better to look at."

What a thoughtful way of looking at Ondaatje's writing style. There is a sort of covering/softening of the story line by the poetic prose. Another Mark remarked in an earlier post that he would remember the poetry rather than the plot; perhaps I will remember the "snow."


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