Tuesday, September 13, 2016
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I finally got around to reading this book. I, of course, first heard about it because of the movie (which I haven’t seen.) I’ve been meaning to read it ever since, and finally picked up a used copy at a second hand store this summer. And it finally made it to the top of my “to-read” list, so here we are.
First of all, I can see why so many people loved the book - it’s atmospheric and moody, and there are several love stories unfolding. But for me, it didn’t really hit home. Maybe my heartstrings are broken, but the love stories weren’t all that compelling. The only one that seemed real was the one between Kip and Hana - I was definitely rooting for their relationship to survive. The romance between the English patient and Katherine never came across as truly romantic. It could be partially because of the way it was related (through flashbacks) and maybe because the relationship itself just didn’t seem healthy. But either way, I was not engaged with that particular love story.
I did really enjoy how the book unfolds - slowly spiraling in on the events of the past that will reveal the identity of the English patient, all the while the four main characters do a similar dance around their various relationships. The style of the writing makes the book seem to be almost dream-like in quality. The mystery of the English patient’s identity was handled well - though I did figure it out before the big reveal.
The four main characters were each quite interesting in their own right. In fact, I was most drawn to the character of Kip, the Sikh who is a sapper (bomb defuser/engineer) in the British Army. Each of the other characters is physically or emotionally damaged: Hana is shell-shocked, Caravaggio has lost both thumbs, and the English patient is horribly burned and disfigured. Yet Kip seems to be quite whole in all regards. He is also the only non-white (though, curiously - and probably significantly - the English patient’s skin is nearly black due to the burn treatments he got in the desert.) As the book progresses, we learn more and more of each character’s back-story, and see how each one came to be at this particular place and time. All of the stories are interesting, and draw the reader along.
One of the biggest flaws, however, was the way the book ended. Kip’s reaction to the US dropping nuclear bombs on Japan seemed to be way out of character and a huge overreaction. Don’t get me wrong, I could see how someone like him could be that outraged, but we never saw any hint of such feelings in him at all. His reaction seemed to come out of the blue. Clearly, the author needed a reason to end Kip’s relationship with Hana, and to end the book as a whole, but this just didn’t ring true to me.
Overall, the book was pretty good. The characters and their stories were interesting, the slow unfolding of the past worked well, and the mesmerizing prose set the appropriate moody, dreamy ambience. It just didn’t have much of an emotional impact on me, personally, though I could see where others might be swept away by the romance. I’m glad I read it, if for no other reason than to know what people are talking about when it’s mentioned.