The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992) 301 p.
Co-winner of the 1992 Booker prize, along with Barry Unsworth’s less famous Sacred Hunger, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient takes place at the tail end of World War II in an Italian villa, where four characters are drawn together: a Canadian-Italian spy named Caravaggio, a British-Indian sapper named Kip, a Canadian nurse named Hanah, and the titular English patient, a badly-burned man with a mysterious past. The novel follows their aimless existence in the “strange time” at the end of war, and details their struggle to come to terms with their experiences.
The English Patient is the first novel I’ve read in a very long time where I already knew what was going to happen, because I’d seen the film version. The movie focuses very heavily on the patient himself, while the book spreads the limelight more evenly – Kip in particular is given a lot of time.
Ondaatje’s prose is generally considered excellent, although I wasn’t a big fan of his style. It’s short and clipped – if you’ve seen the film and heard the way Ralph Fiennes narrates, you’ll know what I mean – and while this works well for the memories, dreams and recollections of the dying patient, it feels ill-suited to the other characters. I was actually quite surprised at how truncated and dreamlike the desert segments feel, given that they make up the majority of the film. Most of the book takes place in the crumbling Italian villa. Another notable difference between book and film is that the book ends with the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, and Kip’s devastated reaction to it. (“They never would have dropped such a bomb on a white nation,” Caravaggio thinks, a line that didn’t make it into the film – probably because it’s true.)
It is undoubtedly an excellent novel, and certainly more deserving of the Booker than Sacred Hunger was, but something about knowing how the story unfolds spoiled it for me. This was another case where Ondaatje’s dreamlike prose was a hindrance, as certain phrases or sentences would immediately summon a screenshot from the film to my mind’s eye. Nevertheless, an objectively good book and well worth reading.