The English Patient – Book Review

“She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water.”

Set in an abandoned villa/hospital in Tuscany, The English Patient is a novel of four people maimed and broken by the war – A badly burnt and disfigured patient who is mistaken to be an English man but later identified as Count Almasy, the naive and simple nurse Hana who remained back in the villa(even when the rest of the staff left after the war) to take care of the English patient with whom she felt a special affinity, an Indian sapper Kip who is from the bomb-disposal squad and the maimed Italian thief Caravaggio who is a friend of Hana’s father and comes to the villa in search of her.

One of the finest points about the book is the lush literature and beautiful word imagery weaved by the Author, Michael Ondaatje. Through words, we feel our presence in the hot dusty desert of Libya, we observe the intensity on Kip’s face when he defuse a bomb or the sensual attraction between Count Almasy and Katherine. It’s multi-layered meaning, poetic prose and the  perfect description of the situations will swoon any word lover away.

The book makes us introspect on the after effects of war on soldiers and the medical staff,

The nurse Hana's outburst against generals
The nurse Hana’s outburst against generals

the feeling of agony on losing a parent and the tender, pure affection one feels for another human being. Most importantly it makes us think about our self-identity. When our body is disfigured completely and our given name forgotten, who will be then? Will we be a person who we actually are/want to be or will we become the individual others want us to be? These 4 broken silhouettes give us a glimpse in to our own personalities – maimed, insecure, selfish/selfless, scared to trust.

I usually do not like books that doesn’t conform to standard plot lines and linear narrative, but this book shall remain an exception. The tense of the narrative changes abruptly from present to the past without clear demarcation, the location changes from Tuscany to the desert in Libya or to Cairo, throwing the reader off the grid and making him confused slightly. Hence this book requires a thorough, at a stretch and concentrated reading.

The book comes to a close with the Indian sapper feeling a sense of betrayal after hearing about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The feeling of the “otherness” comes into play. In Kip’s own words, such a weapon would have never been used on the white race. He ends up renouncing anything connected to the English man/the colonialists in general. In the final narrative, the sapper is seen as Kirpal Singh in an independent India.

“You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate. Let me tell you this. This is the thing I learned. If you take in someone else’s poison – thinking you can cure them by sharing it – you will instead store it within you. Those men in the desert were smarter than you. They assumed he could be useful. So they saved him, but when he was no longer useful they left him.

(It is Day 4 of Write Tribe’s Festival of Words and today’s challenge is to write a book review)

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16 thoughts on “The English Patient – Book Review

  1. Pingback: Ten Favourite Books | The Word Trance
  2. Really liked how you started off: ‘She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water.’ This does look like an interesting read. I’ve been to Tuscany. It’s lovely!

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