Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Review of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992, Bloomsbury)

Italy, 1945. Four people live in a dilapidated nunnery near to Florence as the war draws to a close: Hana, a young, exhausted Canadian nurse; a mysterious, anonymous, English man burned beyond recognition in a plane crash in the Sahara; Caravaggio, a thief/spy who was a friend of Hana’s father who has had his thumbs amputated by the retreating Nazis; and Kip, a Sikh sapper who specialises in bomb disposal whose brother is in jail for being an Indian nationalist. Each is damaged is someway, trying to come to terms with the devastation of the war, the loss of loved ones, and their place in the world. Cut-off from the world they form a set of simmering relationships as each probes the others’ lives. Caravaggio is particularly taken with the English patient’s identity, and Kip and Hana conduct a low-key love affair. Their isolated summer must come to an end at some point, but not before some truths are revealed. Ondaatje tells their story through a fractured narrative of short encounters, shot through with flashbacks to earlier periods. This episodic structure means the story moves forward in quite a stilted way, slowly gaining shape as the various pieces are revealed. There’s no strong narrative arc, and by no means is it a page turner. Rather it is about human nature, relationships, identity and the casualties of war, and creating an affective response aided by poetic prose and a strong sense of place. An interesting, thoughtful, meandering read.

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