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The English Patient

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With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal,and rescue illuminates this book like flashes of heat lightening.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published September 1, 1992

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About the author

Michael Ondaatje

134 books3,601 followers
He was born to a Burgher family of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese-Portuguese origin. He moved to England with his mother in 1954. After relocating to Canada in 1962, Ondaatje became a Canadian citizen. Ondaatje studied for a time at Bishops College School and Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, but moved to Toronto and received his BA from the University of Toronto and his MA from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and began teaching at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. In 1970 he settled in Toronto. From 1971 to 1988 he taught English Literature at York University and Glendon College in Toronto.

He and his wife, novelist and academic Linda Spalding, co-edit Brick, A Literary Journal, with Michael Redhill, Michael Helm, and Esta Spalding.

Although he is best known as a novelist, Ondaatje's work also encompasses memoir, poetry, and film.

Ondaatje has, since the 1960s, also been involved with Toronto's influential Coach House Books, supporting the independent small press by working as a poetry editor.

In 1988 Michael Ondaatje was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (OC) and two years later became a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He has two children and is the brother of philanthropist, businessman, and author Christopher Ondaatje.

In 1992 he received the Man Booker Prize for his winning novel adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film, The English Patient.

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5 stars
42,018 (32%)
4 stars
44,470 (34%)
3 stars
27,657 (21%)
2 stars
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1 star
4,015 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,675 reviews
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,687 followers
August 2, 2013
I marvel that this was ever read by more than a thousand people. It is too poetic for the mainstream, too fragmented for easy consumption, and too sensual for those who consider plot the most important part of a novel. This remains one of my three favourite novels because of its poeticism, fragmentation and sensuality.

This time through I decided to read it out loud, and a whole new sensuality exploded into the experience for me. Actually rolling those words and worlds around on my tongue, wheezing my way through the English Patient's tale, letting Kip's Lahore English spill over my teeth, adopting Carravagio's voice as my own, and trying my best to capture Hana for myself (I have the benefit of being mostly Canadian and not having to adjust my accent for the latter two) broadened the sensuality of the book, and not just because the sounds were resounding in my head. I could feel the words filling my lungs, or burning my throat, or passing through my airways in different manners, so that saying the words on the page, those already sensual words, made the sensuality tangible for me.

To feel a book in other ways as I read it and hear it is as near as I come to a holy experience. Words are my church. Michael Ondaatje is my priest. The English Patient is one of my scriptures.

Don't even talk to me about the travesty that is the film.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
November 24, 2022
Michael Ondaatje in 1999 - image from NY Times

This may be one of those rare instances in which the film exceeds the book. It is a wonderful book, but is not without its flaws. The author, in his third person persona, keeps quite a distance from his characters, and the reader is held at arm’s length. Kip, for example is clearly a very positive character, yet we (I) do not feel the affection for him that one might expect. Caravaggio is a thief and remains a thief, so there is little love there to hang onto. The women are also beyond our urge to feel, Katherine because of her willfulness and Hana for her obsession. Ondaatje writes beautifully. He is a poet, it seems, in the guise of a novelist. He reminds me of Thomas Hardy in that. He has produced thirteen collections of poetry and only seven novels. Make of that what you will. The book also has more background than the film can include and that is a welcome thing. Highly recommended, but while you should be prepared to love the poetry of the writing, be prepared also to maintain a distance from the characters.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Michael Ondaatje on FB

July 8, 2018 - crème de la crème of 50 years of Man Booker prizes - ‘The English Patient’ Wins Best of Man Booker Prize

The Guardian - MO reading an essay he wrote while staying in Conrad’s boat in London Guardian Artangel books podcast: Michael Ondaatje

June 4, 2007 – The New Yorker - The Aesthete: The novel and Michael Ondaatje by Louis Menand – a fascinating analysis of MO’s work -
He is not telling stories; he is using the elements of storytelling to gesture in the direction of a constellation of moods, themes, and images. He is creating the literary equivalent of a Cornell box or a rock garden or a floral arrangement.
Other Michael Ondaatje books I have read
-----2018 - Warlight, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize
-----2007 - Divisidero - read but not reviewed
-----2001 - Anil’s Ghost
-----1997 - In the Skin of a Lion - a very brief look
Profile Image for Adam.
253 reviews207 followers
July 19, 2007
The English Patient is one of my least favorite novels of all time. Michael Ondaatje's prose is the literary equivalent of having a gossamer skein repeatedly thrown over your face and then dragged away; fleeting and insubstantial, but just present enough to be really fucking annoying. Also, his dialogue sucks. People in the 1940s absolutely did not speak the way Ondaatje has them speaking. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1992, an award which was, for some God-unknown reason, split with Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. I haven't read Sacred Hunger, but the one novel by Unsworth I have read, Morality Play, was crisply written, well thought-out, and compelling, so I'm going to go ahead and say that--without ever having read it--there's no way Sacred Hunger could possibly occupy the same literary sewer that The English Patient does.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,566 reviews56.6k followers
April 13, 2022
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient is a 1992 novel by Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lankan-born Canadian poet, fiction writer, essayist, novelist, editor, and filmmaker).

The book follows four dissimilar people brought together at an Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The four main characters are: an unrecognizable burned man, the eponymous patient, presumed to be English, his Canadian Army nurse, a Sikh British Army sapper, and a Canadian thief.

The story occurs during the North African Campaign and centers on the incremental revelations of the patient's actions prior to his injuries, and the emotional effects of these revelations on the other characters.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش روز بیست و هفتم ماه مارس سال2015میلادی

عنوان: بیمار انگلیسی؛ نویسنده: مايكل آنداچی (اونداتیه)؛ مترجم هنگامه كسرائی؛ تهران، انتشارات میلکان، سال‏‫1393؛ در277ص؛ شابک9786007443361؛ موضوع: داستانهای نویسندگان کانادا - سده20م

عنوان: بیمار انگلیسی؛ نویسنده: مايكل اونداتیه؛ مترجم زهرا طراوتی؛ تهران: انتشارات سبزان، سال‏‫1394؛ در231ص؛ شابک9786001171116؛ چاپ دوم زیر نظر علی شیعه علی؛ تهران، سبزان، آمه، سال1398؛ با همان شابک و با همان تعداد صفحه؛

عنوان: بیمار انگلیسی؛ نویسنده: مايكل اونداتیه؛ مترجم نیلوفر سرحدی؛ تهران نشر جمهوری، سال‏‫1398؛ در254ص؛ شابک9786004680271؛

داستان در بحبوحه ی جنگ جهانی دوم کلید میخورد؛ آنجا که هواپیمای خلبانی گمنام در شمال «آفریقا» سقوط میکند؛ خلبانی که هویتش تا پایان داستان به علت شدت آسیبها و سوختگیهای ناشی از سقوط و شوک روانی ماجرا، پنهان میماند؛ «بیمار انگلیسی» عنوانی است که «اونداتیه» برای شخصیت نخست داستانش یعنی همان خلبان حادثه دیده در نظر گرفته اند؛ پس از سرنگونی یک هواپیما، در صحرای شمال «آفریقا»، بدن نیمه جان، و سوخته ی خلبان، توسط گروهی از اعراب صحرا نشین پیدا، و پس از مدتی به نیروهای متفقین در «ایتالیا»، سپرده میشود؛ رویدادهای داسـتان، پس از ورود «بیمار انگلیسی» به یک صومعه، در ایالت «توسکانی ایتالیا»، و بستری شـدن خلبان در آنجا، رخ میدهند؛ صومعه ای که در زمان جنگ بیمارستان شده، و پرستار جوانی، رسیدگی به خلبان بیمار و سوخته را، در آن بیمارستان بر دوش میگیرد، و...؛

نقل: (سراسر جنگ با بیماران بی‌شماری سر کار داش��، و سعی کرده بود نقش پرستار را، برای هر کدام به خوبی ایفا کند؛ «این یکی رو انجام خواهم داد؛ مردن او تقصیر من نبود»؛ این‌ها جملاتی بودند، که در طی جنگ، و جابجایی از این منطقه، به آن شهر در ذهنش زمزمه می‌کرد؛ از «اربینو»، «آنگیاری»، «مونترچی»، و تا «فلورانس»، و کمی دورتر، تا ساحل «پیزا»، هر روز این‌حرف‌ها از یادش می‌گذشت؛ در بیمارستان «پیزا» برای اولین بار، «بیمار انگلیسی» را ملاقات کرد؛ مردی بدون صورت، پوستی پریده به رنگ آبنوس؛ تمام برگه‌ های هویتش در آتش سوخته بود؛ بر قسمت‌هایی از صورت، و بدن سوخته‌ اش،‌ جوهر مازو ریخته بودند، تا سلول‌های حفاظتی پوست قوی‌تر شود؛ دور چشم‌هایش هم لایه‌ ای ضخیم از «ویوله دوژانین» گذاشته بودند؛ نشانه‌ ای تو صورتش نبود، تا کسی او را بشناسد)؛ پایان نقل

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 21/06/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ 23/01/1401هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Henry Avila.
458 reviews3,240 followers
August 23, 2020
Who really is the English Patient? Brought to a mountain villa, outside of Florence Italy, after being rescued in the harsh deserts of Libya, by Bedouins, no dog in this fight. Nevertheless burnt badly in a plane crash, a fiery inferno and a miracle the pilot still has a heartbeat, but for how long ? Hana, a young attractive Canadian nurse, takes care of the "Englishman" , she falls in love with this sad enigma, like many angels of mercy, in the past and the future, they succumb to the helpless . Set in the closing of the Second World War, the loyal nurse, maybe strangely too much so, refuses to leave with the other doctors and nurses, when the conflict heads north. Reason is set aside and a strong belief the needy patient will not survive , the great ordeal indeed for a sick man , a very lets be quite honest about this a quite
arduous move. Enter David Caravaggio, an old friend of her father's, back in Toronto, Canada, Caravaggio a petty thief, is like an uncle to Hana. David a former spy for the allies, reveals that the English Patient, is Count Ladislaus de Almasy, an Hungarian, working for the Germans, yet does it matter anymore? The fighting in its last days and the poor patient is dying ...Another man comes to the villa, Kirpal Singh, an Indian sapper (bomb disposal expert) not a job soldiers have for long. Hana is attracted to "Kip" and he to her, unusual for the time. Kip was trained in London and followed the war to Italy. Though the man has second thoughts about what he's doing here, many miles away from colonial ruled India, his home. Is duty to the British or his family, and an independent Indian nation they all, the inhabitants want, struggle for, even die for, while an older brother is in jail for opposing the British there, and Kip feeling like a traitor to the people. The unknown Count, was an explorer and cartographer in the vast Sahara Desert, with a few others in 1930's . He tells the story of his affair with Katharine, a woman married to his good friend, Geoffrey Clifton, tragic events happen as a consequence of this uncomfortable episode. The noteworthy book keeps a reader interested to the conclusion , with two intense love affairs set in different locations in quite unique circumstances. For anyone that likes a great story unfolding slowly, a splendid narrative too, best for those readers of the less traveled roads, in no hurry to reach the end and just enjoy the view.
Profile Image for Bobby Underwood.
Author 100 books260 followers
August 21, 2018
Few books are felt as much as read, but The English Patient falls into this category. Like the film, it is hauntingly beautiful, but for slightly different reasons. The story of people haunted by love and war, their damaged souls converging at a villa in Italy, remains, but the focus and method in which the story is told on paper is filled with poetic passages, and stunning beauty.

The passages are like water moving to and fro over rocks, shifting back and forth in time so that the beauty beneath can still be seen, but as a shimmering mirage in the desert. It is a strange instance where it is almost recommended that you see the film first in order to appreciate more clearly in your mind the characters as their stories unfold.

Whereas the film focused more on the burned Almasy and his memories of the unending African desert, where he would meet the enigmatic and beautiful Katherine Clifton, sealing the fate which would leave him a charred and hollow shell of his former self, Hanah is the focal point of Ondaatje's lovely poetic prose in the novel. You can almost feel the ghosts hovering over each character as Ondaatje paints a masterpiece with words rather than a brush.

Deeply romantic and lyrical, it is the same story as told in the film, but a more impressionistic and less linear portrait of love and loss. The book is like a delicate flower just beneath the water's surface, its beauty evident but achingly kept just out of reach. The film brought the flower into the sun so we could enjoy its texture and fragrance in more visceral fashion. Both are magnificent, just a different picture of the same flower.

If you loved the film, you must read the book. It is a hauntingly beautiful novel different from anything else you'll ever read. Literary fiction can often be dry and unrewarding, a lot of beautiful words and lovely phrases meant to impress us, but all too often leaving us cold and disinterested. Such is not the case here. This is a perfect storm of prose and story achieved only once by Ondaatje. A masterwork of rich and evocative prose that will surely touch the heart, an organ of fire.
Profile Image for Colin Miller.
Author 3 books28 followers
October 14, 2008
Everyone hates at least one classic. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient was the book that first did it for me.

I’m not always fair when it comes to one-star reviews, but if I’m stopping shy of anonymous Amazon slams I figure I’m not doing all that bad. Still, I’ll try to be as fair as possible to The English Patient.

The novel is set in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. The nameless English patient is a burned invalid who unites the other characters—his worn out nurse, Hana; the maimed spy/thief, Caravaggio; and the Indian sapper/bomb disarmer, Kip—in strange ways. There are mysteries and love triangles and all that polka, but something tripped me up early:

Though the premise sounds interesting, I was immediately thrown off by a description on page one about the English patient’s penis “sleeping like a sea horse” and from then on I knew that I would not like this book. I finished it, complaining about the dialogue and the prose, but I knew it was the sea horse penis line tainting my opinion. I still remember this description almost a decade later and it still bothers me. I don’t know why, but it does. Is that fair? No, but I think I need to accept the fact that there are times when you can’t get past your subjectivity. I could try rereading The English Patient, but I think I’d trip over that sea horse penis line again and be left in a foul mood, so sorry, the heavily biased review stands. One star.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
696 reviews1,073 followers
September 24, 2018
"I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you."

I thought this book was ok. I would say that I enjoyed it, but I can't say that it is one that will stay with me, nor one I will keep and choose to reread.
There is a lot of flicking between past and present, and between different characters with no way of defining when this happens. This meant I found the narrative rather disjointed and at times confusing.
Hanna is a nurse, chosen to stay behind at the hospital where she worked once WW2 is over and everyone else has moved on. With her is the English Patient, a man with severe burns to his entire body. We also meet 2 others who come to stay with them in their makeshift house.
I enjoyed the characters, and their complex personalities. We get to learn background on each of them, what they went through during the war and how they are dealing with the aftermath.

"Those who weep lose more energy than they lose during any other act."

Overall, I can see how it could be a deeply affecting read. But the constant jumping between the narrative meant I couldn't get fully invested in the story. 3 stars :)

"People think a bomb is a mechanical object, a mechanical enemy. But you have to consider that somebody made it."
Profile Image for Margot Jennifer.
190 reviews25 followers
February 1, 2009
The English Patient is an illuminating novel written by Michael Ondaatje, who tells the story of four damaged lives tangled together at the end of World War II. The story involves characters like: the melancholy, childlike nurse Hana; the emotionally and physically maimed thief, Caravaggio; the pensive and wary Indian bomb-disposal expert, Kip; and the burnt and broken English patient, a mysterious wounded soul without a name. The story revolves around several major themes such as: war and the paradigm shift that takes place as cultures and people recover from such; love and the depths one will go to to acquire it; and the illusive but essential search for self-identity. The themes stretch across all aspects of human nature, but it is the development of self that receives the most attention. Ondaatje brings you into a transformative exploration of identity through multiple layering of meaning in each description. The author does this by drawing you far into the fantasy by luscious, sensuous elucidations. This book is not merely a thing to be read on an intellectual level. The book is to be sensed and physically processed, as you filter through smokey comprehension and hazy daydreams.
The book is a web of memories, and if you are expecting a linear story, you may be discouraged by the nonconformity to typical plot lines. The book weaves back and forth as memories reveal themselves into a tapestry of dream-like narratives. Ondaatje’s novel is a quilt of a story, much like the English patient's stitched together copy of Herodotus. The web of narrative is displayed much like how Hana reads to her patient from the books she tiptoes out of the library. She opens randomly to any page and begins reading. The plots of the stories are irrelevant to Hana and the English patient. The relevance for them lies in the moment, in the singular experiences that combine to make up the whole. The English Patient should be read on this level. Ondaatje says that he doesn’t know what his books are about until he finishes writing them. You may not completely understand what the book is about until you are done reading it, and even then the story changes and evolves as your own identity transforms. Very few books take you through this kind of self-discovery and leave you with a new awareness of the corporeal.
The book is a sensual journey that must be taken step by step, yet it is without a beginning or an ending point. The relevance of Ondaatje’s message is destroyed by constantly looking at the horizon to find the end of the road. And what is the message? For many it is the examination of self through poetically saturated text that the author employs to evoke personal discovery. The book brings up many questions to its watery surface for you to find answers to. For much of the text, the question you’ll be asking yourself is “Who is the English Patient”? For most of the narration you have no idea who this burned shadow of a man is. He seems to be a reminder of desperation and betrayal, pain and lost love, but this is not the story the author wants you to focus on. The English patient is merely a catalyst for the other characters, and you as well, to discover identity. Without him, the others would never have been able to interlace their stories and find understanding and comfort in each other.

This is a novel of revelation, and just as the identity of the English patient is slowly revealed as the novel progresses, so too are the inner selves and spiritual identities of the other characters in the novels. Every sentence is beautifully crafted and evocative, keeping you completely enthralled in the story. The story reaches across all boundaries of time and space to connect with people from all walks of life. Each of us who reads the story as the author intended, will find many connections with the story and its characters.
The text begins with Hana and the English patient living alone in a bombed out and abandoned hospital/monastery. From this location, all other places in the story are visited through memories and often painful recollections. Hana cares for both herself and her patient by keeping a simple garden and trading medical supplies for their other physical needs. For their intellectual needs she reads passages from odd books found in the possibly mined library. Throughout the story, Hana represents the scarred, insecure child in each of us; afraid to move beyond our sphere of comfort, but whimsical and playful within it. Hana cares for her patient as a substitute for how she would like to be cared for. She wants desperately to be wrapped and held and whispered to, and she does this vicariously through her patient, caring for him like he was a small frightened child in need of comfort. Yet, the English patient does not need this kind of comfort from Hana. The English patient no longer needs solace from others. He represents the resolve that the broken and tired have, who no longer have a choice in what they are given, and who can accept the circumstances without challenging them. He realizes that it’s the journey that gives birth to his identity and the means by which it ends is inconsequential. The duo is presently joined by a old friend of Hana’s father. The friend is Caravaggio, a thief and a morphine addict. The confused and wounded Caravaggio comes to find Hana as he looks for ties to the past and clues to his confused identity. The thief typifies most of us, who are somehow maimed whether physically or emotionally, who need to piece back the severed parts of our identities to make a new whole. Finally they are joined by Kip, the diviner, never looking at what is in front of his eyes, always searching through the layers beneath. He is afraid of connection and of loss. He is constantly aware of the dangers around him and therefore cannot appreciate the simple pleasures and safety nets of relationships. Many who have been afflicted with great loss and insecurity can identify with this character.
Ondaatje’s work draws many parallels to our own quest for self-awareness and our desire for peace with the past. The book is an examination of the nature of identity. Who are we when our world is torn apart? Who are we when our names are taken from us? Who are we when we no longer can be identified by our physical characteristics? Are we what other people make of us? Ondaatje doesn’t give you the answers, he gives you the questions and leads you lyrically through the journey of others on the same mission so that you may discover the answer for yourself. Ondaatje’s work is organic and alive. It will change your self-perception and gives charge to electrical pulses of discovery as you allow it to guide the form of your ever-changing identity.

*contains sexual material and swearing
September 23, 2015

O, is for Ondaatje

2 Stars

I’m going to venture out of my normal review style here, and instead do a Q & A with Hana (the, erm... MC, maybe?!)

Me: Hey Hana, what’s up with you not leaving the Italian Villa despite the fact that there are corpses and mines littered everywhere and the war has ended already?

Hana: I just don’t think "The English Patient" would survive the transfer and I love my independence here. I mean where else can I give an immobile man sponge baths, inject him with morphine AND play hopscotch in darkened hallways?

Me: *puzzled stare* Moving on: Why do you seem to have a pseudo-sexual relationship with all the men in this book, despite the fact that one is purporting to be "like an Uncle" and another is entirely bedridden??

Hana: Well, I am a woman surrounded by men, need I say more?? *shoulder shrug*

Me: Well, yeah, I kind of need more than that! But I’m not going to get any more explanation from you am I??

Hana: Nope. Just accept it.

Me: *growls* Fine. *teethgritting* What’s up with you and Kip?? He sounds really fascinating and kind, in a quiet withheld way. Don’t you think his job as a sapper is intriguing?

Hana: I just really enjoy his silence, and the way he can enter a room and take up next to no space in it. That’s why I so frequently use bird references when thinking about him. Also his skin is brown like darkness, I like it.

Me: ...okay?! So you’re saying that the most interesting part of this man who has lived in India, travelled to London and taken on an occupation that has an unimaginably high mortality rate (I mean defusing BOMBS, come ON!) is the fact that he can disappear into shadows?? This is why you became lovers?

Hana: No, he was kind of just there, I guess.

Me: Well, that’s romantic! *headdesk* What’s the story with the English Patient? Why’s he so special?

Hana: Oh, he was burned all over in a plane crash so it turned his skin dark. I like dark skin, even when it’s from life-endangering burns!

Me: What does that even... ?? And his story, don’t you want to know who he is and how he came to be here?

Hana: No, not really. My sort-of-sexually-attracted-to-me Uncle is far more interested in his story. I’ll leave them to their morphine and stories.

Me: Okay then. What is the point of this story exactly?

Hana: What do you mean "point"?? It’s about love and loss, AND it’s really erotic.

Me: *blank stare* It is?? I thought it was about pages and pages of dates and exerts from other books that never really become part of the overall story, and love affairs that aren’t hot enough to heat a baby's bathwater.

Hana: But it’s so erotic because Kip is Indian and boy-like despite being in his late twenties. Did I mention his skin is darker than mine?

Me: For god’s sake… YES, yes you did, five hundred million times!! Okay final question: Why in the world would I give a shit about your affair or the English Patient’s affair (in hindsight)?

Hana: BECAUSE it’s roooommantiic!!

Me: I don’t buy it, I think that while this book has beautiful moments it is, overall, as bland as plain yogurt.

Hana: I don’t think you’re the type of person this book is meant to be read by.

Me: Neither do I.

Profile Image for emma.
1,825 reviews48.3k followers
January 12, 2022
Honestly, the idea that I could ever have possibly liked this book is on me.

But to be fair, I thought that I was thinking clearly on this one.

Yes, I read this book primarily out of my need to read everything that has ever made it to a "books you should read in a lifetime" list, especially those that are available 3 for a dollar at my childhood library paperback sale, and yes, that instinct almost steers me wrong.

But also, I actually really enjoy World War II content. Sure, I might not really care for historical fiction, but I do watch Band of Brothers with my dad like, once a year. And that's something.

But this...this was more weird romance than it was a war novel.

And about that, I have three things to say:
1) The way women are written in this is...so unbelievably corny to me.
2) I can handle a lot of things, but I cannot handle cheesiness, corniness, earnestness to the point of being saccharine, or any other synonyms.
3) The reading of sex scenes written by men who are trying to sound literary is a punishment that should be reserved for torture exclusively.

Bottom line: I hope I character-development my way into never reading a book like this again.


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Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,765 followers
June 13, 2015
On the floating shelf of Books That Have Changed My Life, one will find The English Patient.

Michael Ondaatje repeats a line (it appears on pages 112 and 113 of my edition) that I want to wrap myself up in and think about, write about, dream about, cry over, taste, drink in: 'If he could just walk the seven yards across the Englishman's room and touch her he would be sane.' and a few paragraphs later, 'If he could walk across the room and touch her he would be sane.'

I believe it is the only repeated line in the book. I want to ask Ondaatje why. Why this moment. Why this line. Then again, I don't. Because I want to live in my belief that this line is the soul of the book. This line is the soul of storytelling.

If. If he could just. If he could just walk.

What follows after the second iteration of the line is this, 'But between them lay a treacherous and complex journey. It was a very wide world'.

You see? The entire book, the plot, its themes, everything you could need to change your life is right there. Page 113. Just across the room. Where candlelight shines on the face of a young woman with an old soul. Why can't you walk those seven yards? Why can't you touch her? What is the madness in your soul, where has it come from, and why do you resist being healed by that young woman with the candlelight in her eyes?

Goddammit. This book.

Profile Image for Luís.
1,861 reviews519 followers
June 23, 2022
It's a world in which you have to (accept to) let yourself be overwhelmed. Not always easy, but you get caught up in the game, the mix of people, places, and eras. Pleasant reading, to approach under the angle of poetry, dreamlike. I liked this reading even if it sometimes required my efforts: one does not enter this universe unexpectedly and probably does not leave it unscathed; it is a look at people, life, and feelings. And at war, alas. A look at yourself, too, at each other's humanity. I wonder how brought this novel to the screen; it must have been a tremendous work to respect the spirit.
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,532 followers
July 20, 2020
I can't believe it took me so long to get to this book. But in a way I'm glad I read it four months into a deadly pandemic. Immersing myself in this tale of four strangers holed up in a crumbling, abandoned villa outside Florence in the final days of World War II felt oddly soothing during this bizarre, uncertain time.

The way Ondaatje crafts the story, weaving in and out of people's memories, is just masterful. He creates a dreamscape of imagery, thought and narrative. The book is of average length, 300 pages or so, but the language is so rich and suggestive I found myself rereading passages, savouring and practically tasting the words.

On one level the book is a mystery: who is this patient, presumed to be English, his body charred and blackened after being found in a burning plane in the Egyptian desert? And what draws the young Canadian nurse, Hana, who has suffered much loss during the war, to tend to him? Later, her family friend Caravaggio, a thief and (it turns out) spy, joins her, convinced he knows secrets about the patient. And then there's the fourth figure, Kirpal ("Kip") Singh, an Indian Sikh bomb disposal expert who was trained in England and forges connections with the erudite patient and the vulnerable Hana.

But it's about so much more: betrayals (of nations and of the heart), colonialism, grief, and different kinds of love. There's also a fair bit about jazz, one of Ondaatje's running obsessions.

If you know the acclaimed movie – I've seen it four or five times, and intend to rewatch it again right after writing this – there are many changes. For one thing, the narrative is easier to follow, and there's no question about the patient's identity. The two main settings of the book – 1945 Italy and 1930s Egypt – are interwoven in a satisfying way (in the novel the Cairo section doesn't really begin until halfway through). And, the younger characters in the villa - especially Caravaggio and Kip – get more thorough and complex backstories.

If anything, I admire the adaptation even more after reading the book. The filmmakers frequently take bits of scenes from one section of the book and juxtapose them in another – always for emotional impact and clarity. The cinematography and music also add fascinating layers. The novel features a different conclusion, but both film and book end on satisfying, hopeful notes.

Ondaatje remains one of the most sensual writers around; his double romance narratives are swoon-inducing without resorting to cliché or sentimentality. And the way he teases out the patient's history (the idea of history is a major theme), often induced by morphine, is simply hypnotic.

This is a book that will live on in my imagination – and haunt my dreams – for a long time.
Profile Image for Lisa.
977 reviews3,327 followers
September 2, 2021
Scarred and broken people.

Isolated in a random post-catastrophe community.

Breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.

Captivating characters and storylines.

This is a wonderful, wonderful novel, told in different layers and voices and from different perspectives. If we can rationalise this, one character thinks at the end of the nightmare tale of the intellectual brilliance that humanity puts into creating ever more sophisticated ways to kill each other, culminating in nuclear weapons, if we can rationalise this, we can rationalise anything.

And unfortunately, it still seems to hold true. We can rationalise anything, and we keep destroying what we created.

But there is another message in the beautifully depressing story: words matter, and they have power. Keep telling the story, and someone, somewhere, will listen and act upon the story with the power of individual kindness and charity.

Hope and despair walk off the stage of this story together, holding hands in their loneliness!
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,607 followers
September 15, 2018
“There are days when I come home from arid writing when all that can save me is ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly performing with the Hot Club of France. 1935. 1936. 1937.”

Side Note: I can understand these sentiments precisely. Whether the river of creativity expresses for an individual through the medium of words, of music, of putting together plumbing pipes, of performing intricate surgery or dance steps; no matter the form of individual creativity, music can help a person to focus, to rejuvenate, to resuscitate.

Grappelly was the ‘anglicized’ version of the master violinist’s name but later, he changed it back to its original spelling: Grappelli. I was fortunate enough to attend a concert featuring Stephane Grappelli with my music agent. It was the early 1980’s and we were right in front of the barely elevated stage in a small, intimate venue in Vancouver. He played his famous style of “gypsy jazz” or “manouche jazz” and I was spellbound. /End of Side Note

“A man walks as fast as a camel. Two and a half miles an hour. If lucky he would come upon ostrich eggs. If unlucky, a sandstorm would erase everything. He walked for three days without any food . . . . . May God make safety your companion, Madox had said. Good-bye. A wave. There is God only in the desert, he wanted to acknowledge that now. Outside of this there was just trade and power, money and war. Financial and military despots shaped the world.”

It is interesting how timeless – and timely – this novel is. The characters in this novel face life-changing times during the middle to late 1930’s and early to middle 1940’s, the truest timing for the second World War. War does not begin when someone says, “We are at war.” It begins when the chess pieces are first taken out of the box and begin to be arrayed in their assigned places on the boards.

Real war also doesn’t end with “checkmate”. After that point, analysis takes place, chess pieces are sometimes taken through a re-run of a particular move. When all the cogitating is done, the pieces remaining on the board still need to go home.

This novel is romantic in two senses. It does have love stories within it. However, it also follows the romanticism sensibilities of individualism, strong emotion, and exploring the past with eyes that have one lens in idealism and one lens firmly grounded in bitter reality. Some of the characters in the book find the point of convergence between these two areas on the spectrum and that all of this takes place in under 300 pages astounds me.

The story in this novel is heart-rending and it is also laced with hope. The writing is sublime, with the poetic rhythms that Michael Ondaatje’s prose is noted for. The English Patient won the Man Booker prize in 1992 and the Governor General’s Award. It also won the Golden Man Booker prize this year. The prizes are well deserved and I hope this novel continues to be read and enjoyed for many years to come. I also hope that it is digested and that it will serve as a cautionary tale for future generations.
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,048 followers
March 7, 2016
“The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names...”
The same might be said of the characters in The English Patient. For this is a beautiful, artfully crafted novel about the mapping of identity within borders, set before and during World war two when borders were in continual flux and territorial conquest and possession were the name of the game. The narrative, like the abandoned villa in which the characters take refuge and the fateful cave where the paintings of swimmers are discovered (even the desert/sea boundary has shifted over time), is a construction of haunting echoes. Ondaatje continually brings back the narrative to memory, the most secret and probably defining element of self and thus continually shows us how shifting are the borders of self. Nationality, another form of mapping identity, especially in wartime, is another prevailing theme of the novel. Kip, as an Indian sapper in the British army, straddles another drawn line. He has never felt accepted by the British as a whole though he has two English friends with whom he feels very close – Ondaatje again showing us how history’s borders are arbitrary and can be individually breached. Nevertheless he will always feel excluded, as if detained by customs. Love, not nationality, will provide him with his most vivid sense of self – undone ultimately by another impersonal act of history. The English Patient isn’t English at all, he’s a Hungarian count, and his nationality too will ultimately exclude him from his heart. He himself pastes and writes his own fragmented history into his battered copy of Herodotus’ Histories. A contrast between the conventional narrative of history with its battles and leaders and shifting allegiances and personal history made up of secret epiphanies and tragedies of timing. Together with Hana, a young nurse mourning the death of her brother and Caravaggio, a spy, thief and morphine addict Almasey, the so-called English patient, and Kip take refuge in the Tuscan villa which becomes a kind of haven where they speak to each other’s private selves and are thus able to draw up truer maps of their individual histories, until the outside world and its insistence on arbitrary stifling demarcation lines once again intervenes.
Also has to be said that Ondaatje’s prose is as rhythmically mesmerising and inspired as Virginia Woolf or Don Delillo at their best.
October 8, 2022

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He lies in the room surrounded by pale maps. He is without Katharine. His hunger wishes to burn down all social rules, all courtesy.

Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflections between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book (155).

I've had this book for about five years. My mom gave it to me. Sometimes she gives me books because she thinks I should read them, and other times she gives me books because she thinks I should try to read them. THE ENGLISH PATIENT falls into the latter category. If you asked me to describe this book in one word, I think I'd chose "overwrought." Sometimes the writing is beautiful (see quote above), but other times (many times) it's purple to the point of nonsensical, for example describing a peen as a "seahorse."

The plot is kind of strange. It's about four people - a nurse, a bomb defuser, a thief, and a burned patient - all living in this abandoned villa post-WWII. That sounds like it should be interesting, but in the first third of the book, the characters drift without purpose, swimming through the heavy-handed prose like sluggish fish. The story doesn't really get interesting until the last two thirds of the story, where the eponymous English patient finally tells his story of espionage and doomed romance.

Not really my thing. There are better WII stories out there.

2 stars
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,226 followers
September 12, 2019
This feels like a classic piece of literature, one of those core foundation books taught in American Lit classes at liberal arts colleges. Perhaps it's because of all the classical references Michael Ondaatje places in the mouths of his character the English patient. Perhaps it is in the storytelling, concerning itself with the cerebral and almost entirely devoid of action except in the backstories. The poetic choice of words themselves may be the cause. Perhaps it's the World War II Italian countryside setting that draws one back and ages these pages.

I don't know. I stopped trying to know long before I finished The English Patient. I just let those words wash over me like a bath for the mind.

Here is a lengthy summary if you care to know more, but I would skip it and just dive right into the book: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/english...

Though I think this is a brilliant novel, I wasn't entirely blown away. It drags in places and is a tad too self-consciously literary for my tastes these days. And yet, despite these personal taste flaws, I still have to give this five stars. It's too good to be lumped into with the sea of four star books I've read, many of which are quite good, but few of which attain the unearthly feeling one gets when reading The English Patient.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
462 reviews289 followers
August 5, 2018
I feel bitterly disappointed in myself for hating on this book, I don’t get the love for this book at all, why all the accolades? I caught myself nodding off lulled by the writing or simply from boredom I’m not quite sure. I did finish the book, but did struggle with the style of writing in particular. It’s dreamlike quality with it’s non linear and poetic prose making it feel more like an endurance test, it also lacked all kinds of plausibility. I wasn’t compelled in the slightest to pick the book up, I even started feeling irritated thinking about it. Maybe my expectations were too high? Booker prize winner and all but this book was not for me. Sadly only 2 stars.
Profile Image for Mel.
105 reviews24 followers
June 13, 2011
This book is a slow moving dream-- like a great, surrounding poem. The language is unbelievably sensual and the story is like nothing you'll ever read. It is thick with emotion and description. Although somewhat laborious at parts, it's altogether disassembling (to quote the author). It takes you into the raw bleeding heart of Almasy and never lets go. It made me want to die....and then be re-born and read it again. I could not ever express how much I love love love this book.
116 reviews40 followers
May 23, 2018
On a rainy Saturday, Michael Ondaatje was on the Podcast introducing his new novel Warlight. It just felt the right time to do the long-overdue catchup on his best-known book. I pretty much finished in one sitting, and was totally blown away.
Several World War books have already made to my all-time favorite list: Atonement, All the Light We Cannot See, Songbird, just to name a few. The English Patient has easily found itself a spot there.
If you haven’t read the book, most likely you have watched the amazing Academy-winning film adaptation. So I’ll spare you of the plot summary. The book gave more ink to the love story between Hana and Kip; it was more quiescent and evolving than the dramatic revelation between Almasy and Katharine. The book delivered the narratives in non-linear spurs, whisking through time and location, experience and impression, apprehension and perception. it all fit as two of the four main characters survived on morphine. I appreciated the breadth and depth through the exquisite and poetic prose, yet failed to meet the back cover with conviction; several permutations all more or less made sense. But this was exactly the unique beauty of the book.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,043 reviews903 followers
July 12, 2018
My second read of this novel, this time in English, twenty-two years later.

I had some trepidations getting into it. It's amazing that some images, little details stayed with me all this time. Of course, there were things I'd forgotten, such as the fact that Caravaggio was Hana's family friend, that Almasy, aka the English Patient, was fifteen years older than his love interest, Katherine. I confess, the movie adaptation, which I love, did muddle my reading experience a bit, albeit not as much as I expected it.

If I were to put my super critical hat on, I'd say that all the details about the different kinds of bombs and how to dismantle them could have been cut, and the ending it was, arguably, unnecessary.

Nevertheless, I loved re-reading this wonderful novel. Now I feel like watching the movie adaptation again.
Profile Image for Judith E.
546 reviews191 followers
March 24, 2022
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a book with no oomph. Just because the beginning is a murky, hazy, slow pace with a bombed-out Italian villa and landscape it’s no way to judge what unfolds in this masterpiece. Be prepared for desert adventure, spies, sexual attraction, PTSD, and so much more all leading to a firm statement about war, love, and white supremacy. You will wonder out loud, (and I do this a lot while making the bed), how the heck did Michael Ondaatje just pull that off? Oh, and there’s tons of revealing book references, there’s morphine, and the Marseilles is sung twice. With feeling.

It’s a magnificent read.
Profile Image for Jr Bacdayan.
211 reviews1,681 followers
October 1, 2016
In the early precepts of the morning, before the spherical fire illuminates from the east, there lies a mist resembling a giant white sheet engulfing the plain of Florence when viewed from the vista of Villa San Girolamo. Villa San Girolamo: a resort of renaissance, a nunnery, a fortress, a makeshift hospital, a shelter to four scarred and broken silhouettes in darkness, a testament to the arduous effects of time and the slow decomposition of the past.

How do you pick up the pieces? How do you stop the nightmares? How do you recover from the grip of death? How do you carry on? Can a shadow still be pulled out of darkness?

Four enigmas: a nurse, a thief, a sapper, an English patient. Entities, barely human, all broken by their grim experiences of war, of life. All of them building walls to hide in, exteriors of detachment, distractions of duty, ebbs of morphia, and memories of the past. All living as if in a daze, a mystical dream of false pretenses and unaccepted truths. Blind, burned, deaf, thumb-less, numb. Breathing but not living.

“She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.”

“…Even the idea of a city never entered his mind. It was as if he had walked under the millimeter of haze just above the inked fibers of a map, that pure zone between land and chart, between distances and legends, between nature and storyteller. The place they had chosen to come to, to be their best selves, to be unconscious of ancestry. Here, apart from the sun compass and the odometer mileage, and the book, he was alone, his own invention. He knew during these times how the mirage worked, the fata morgana, for he was within it.”

They follow this path, this mirage in the dessert of certain death treading in a slow, painful gait. Until one day something draws them out, something awakens them from their deep dream-riddled sleep. What awakens them? I will not divulge this information. I leave you to bask yourself in the painful beauty of this mystifying masterpiece. Michael Ondaatje is a diviner of literature. He manipulates poetic prose and turns it into an engulfing atmosphere of subtle feeling, subtle but never wavering. He creates an oasis of crushed lives and broken dreams. He illustrates darkness and leaves you to feel your way out. It is a painful journey yet it is beautiful through and through.

“How can you smile as though your whole life hasn't capsized”

After their awakening they all live their separate lives. The web of dreams undone. The mist lifted. Three of them survive, one succumbs to darkness, to dreams. Years pass, only to realize that they survive, but they never recover. That they were broken, but never fixed. They woke up, but they never stopped dreaming. What's done cannot be undone. Some wounds never heal.

You smile to mask the pain.
Profile Image for Constantine.
834 reviews135 followers
June 21, 2022
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ ½
Genre: Literary Fiction

Four damaged lives meet and live together in Italy at the end of World War II. In an abandoned villa, a nurse (Hanna), a thief (Caravaggio), an Indian sapper (Kip), and an English patient, meet and live there talking about their present and about what they have suffered in the past. They relive those memories (good and bad) that still cheer them up or haunt them all the time.

This book was the Booker Prize winner in 1992. I have watched the movie adaptation many times but this is the first time I read the book itself. This is not my first Michael Ondaatje book though. The story is very captivating. I think the idea behind the story is brilliant to bring four strangers who suffered many hardships together in an isolated place especially at a time the war’s dust has not settled yet. The whole setting of the story is fantastic.

The author has given all the characters their due. Each one of them is well developed whether it is their present or their past. I feel this is a great accomplishment because the book is not long. The writing is stunning, to say the least. You will see beautiful prose and many poetically rich text. As for the timeline, keep in mind that this is not a linear story. It goes back and forth between the past and present for each one of the characters.

The English patient’s identity is gradually revealed throughout the story. Not only him but all the other characters as well. However, the reader will be more interested in him at first due to the title of the book which makes you think it is all about him. In reality, the story is more about all the characters but the English patient is the one that is kept mostly ambiguous for the sake of story-building and giving the plot more intrigue and vagueness. Highly recommended for all literary fiction fans.
Profile Image for Tahani Shihab.
592 reviews828 followers
October 29, 2020

أنا شخصٌ إذا تُر��كَ وحيدًا في منزل أحدهم يتّجه إلى المكتبة، يُخرِجُ مُجلّدًا ويستنشقه، هكذا يدخُل إلينا التاريخ.

الصدى هو روح الصّوت، يثيرُ نفسه في الأمكنة المجوّفة.

إن لحظات ما قبل النوم هي اللحظات التي تشعر فيها أنها أكثر حياة، تقفز عبر أجزاء اليوم، جالبةً معها كلّ لحظة إلى السرير، مثل طفل بكتبه المدرسية وأقلامه.

الكلمات أشياء مخادعة أكثر من الكمنجات.

إذا تجرّعتِ سمّ شخصٍ آخر ظانّة أنه في وسعك أن تُشفيه إذا شاركته كميّة السّم، فأنت في الحقيق تخزّينينه داخلك.

إن إنسانًا ليس من دمك يمكن أن يتعاطف معك أكثر من شخص من دمك. وكأنك تسقط بين يدي غريب وتكتشف مرآة اختيارك.

Profile Image for Paul Weiss.
1,221 reviews167 followers
August 17, 2022
My opinion only, of course, but it goes against the mainstream!

Typically, books characterized as modern classics, whose literary merits must be described by voluminous scholarly analysis and gushing pretentious references to such tools as symbolism, have never appealed to my reading taste. Frankly, I prefer a much more direct story-line and the plot of Ondaatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT, such as it is, is anything but direct and transparent.

Maclean’s magazine referred to it as, “One of the finest Canadian novels ever written”. On the other hand, I closed the last page, shrugged and asked myself “What the hell did I just read?” One supposes it was a romance of kinds set against the turbulence of the final days and the aftermath of World War II in Italy but I could find nothing in Kip Singh, Caravaggio or Hana that merited my interest or any deep thought as to their motivations. Indeed, the only parts of the novel which rescued it from being set aside unfinished were the very compelling descriptions of the war against Rommel in North Africa, the technical aspects of the mechanics of bombs and the hair-raising description of Kip Singh’s work as a bomb-disposal engineer.

One more book checked off that had languished for many years on my bucket list. But I can’t say I’d recommend it particularly heartily to any future readers.

Paul Weiss
Profile Image for Erin.
2,956 reviews485 followers
April 7, 2019
Alrighty, this is an absolutely terrible way to start a book review, but the 1996 film directed by Anthony Mingella and starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, and Kristin Scott Thomas is a film (that picked up 9 Oscars) that still remains one of my all time faves. Yet, I had never read the book. That is, until this morning. Adored by many since its 1992 publication, The English Patient is now considered one of those much talked about books as it is now available in thirty-eight languages and now holds the coveted "Golden Booker Prize" awarded 2018 to celebrate the awards 50th anniversary. As I see from reading the many fantastic reviews that are available on Goodreads and elsewhere on the internet, it is a book that is quite polarizing.

Although I concur with my fellow reviewers that there is a choppiness to the narrative as it goes back and forth between the present characters and the burned man's past, I loved it for two very specific reasons. First, the reflections on the devastating impact in the aftermath of WWII on the individual characters. Each of these characters find themselves in a sort of a limbo and I was riveted to discover where they would all end up. Second, the passionate love story between Almasy and Katharine Clifton. If Robert Redford in Out of Africa made every woman desire to have her hair washed by her lover, then Michael Ondaatje's Almasy( and Ralph Fiennes by extension) probably makes us wonder why more men are not fascinated by our suprasternal( jugular) notch.

I am glad that I didn't overlook it! Now of course I wish to watch the movie all over again!
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