The Short Version: As World War II draws to a protracted and agonizing close in Europe, a young nurse opts to hole up in an Italian villa with her mysterious patient – a badly burned Englishman. A charming thief from her past and a quiet army sapper join her there, the four of them seeking not to solve anyone else’s mysteries but to discover the mysteries within themselves before the world catches up to them.
The Review: I think “surprise” might be the best description for my response to this book. But surprise also conjures intensity of emotion and that might still be incorrect. See, my surprise came from the fact that Ondaatje never does quite what I expect him to do in this book. The few times that he does, his characters react with nonchalance and the focus of the novel is turned elsewhere. There is a defiance of typical plot mechanics that I found both fascinating and, after the fact, a little shrug-inducing.
For example, the identity of the titular English patient is a source of great mystery. And in the hands of a different kind of writer, I think it would be thrilling and an engine to power an entire novel. Here, while it has its thrilling angles, the reveal is treated much more like a beautiful object on a shaded shelf slowly being illuminated by the sun. There is nothing urgent or pressing and the reader can just sit and watch the display before watching it recede again. There’s a passivity to the proceedings that I couldn’t help but notice – and, once I did, I couldn’t stop noticing it.
The same sense of passive observation comes even in the moments that do jack the reader’s pulse a little bit, like the English patient’s recollections of his affair or the sapper’s attempts to defuse bombs. I got the sense that Ondaatje was aware of what he could do to the reader with these moments of potential intensity and that he chose very carefully not to indulge said intensity but to, instead, sit back and admire the people and the moments for their own worth as opposed to their worth as moments in an ongoing plot.
All of this adds up to a sensation of ethereality, a beauty that is only observable. As much as I was wowed by individual moments and by Ondaatje’s writing, I couldn’t help but feel removed from the story and the urgency of anything other than these people and their very small moments. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – the intimacy of small moments is a rare thing to do well and Ondaatje excels at it – but I couldn’t help but want more out of these stories. I wanted the entire novel devoted to Kip and his time with Lord Suffolk. I wanted more stories of Caravaggio’s exploits around Europe. I’m told that there’s more story to be discovered about Hana (and Caravaggio) in Ondattje’s preceding novel, In the Skin of a Lion – so perhaps I’ll find out what I need to know there.
All of this is leading up to, of course, how I felt about the English patient’s story – the part of the novel that lent itself perhaps best to the Oscar-winning adaptation. And while the tale of Count Lászlo de Almásy is certainly an exciting one, with illicit sex and international double-crossing and planes crashing in the desert and so on… it reminded me of a very pale memory of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. Perhaps that book (and the entire Alexandria Quartet), being so fondly recalled even several years later, will always simply overshadow any other novels that attempt to cover some of the same territory. It may be unavoidable.
But I think the comparison between the two novels is actually rather illuminative. Durrell’s writing is a sumptuous feast, the sort of reading experience you nearly drown in – whereas Ondaatje’s is a beautifully-plated tasting menu, featuring several small moments of indulgent excellence. The quality of the food is the same, but it’s being able to eat til you’re full and having just enough that you’re still hungry. As wonderful as the characters and individual moments of The English Patient were, I was still hungry every time I put the book down – and sometimes, you just want to be a little more filled up.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Full of beautiful moments and several storytelling feints and subversions… but the novel ends up feeling a little too light for my tastes. Ondaatje’s writing is beautiful (he’s also a poet, which explains much) and he has an eye for characters that will stick with me and seem to exist outside of the story he’s given them on the page. They are interested in discovering themselves, not in uncovering any forward-moving plots – and while this is an end in and of itself, there are so many stories here that I wanted more from. Sometimes you’re happy with a tasting menu… and sometimes you want a full meal, you know?