The English patient by Michael Ondaatje.
Halfway through this prosaic melody, as a reader, you wonder why this is titled as such. Over time, as you flip the pages, the realization dawns on why it is so. I don’t recall reading a book that places so much emphasis on developing, exploring, and storytelling through the lens of all its main characters in such stark details. The book feels like a milieu of characters with war-torn pasts looking to salvage whatever is left of their own selves.
The story takes place at the turn of World War 2 when the allied forces are gaining, and the Germans began retreating. A war-torn makeshift hospital needed to be shifted to a safer place but an adamant young nurse (Hana) refuse to leave the care of a burnt patient and decides to stay on. The patient, presumed to be English, is a cause Hana has attached herself with for the foreseeable future. Caravaggio, a former thief, who also happens to be a friend of Hana’s father joins her. The three of them are later joined by a Sapper (Kip), a Sikh from India, who is with the British Army as a mine/bomb diffuser. Their lives revolve around the English patient who is slowly recovering and narrates snippets of his past under morphine or just flashbacks.
The book is about characters who’re trying to come to terms with the misery that war brought and coping with the trauma of their current life. Either trying to find positivity amidst the chaotic post-war world, which nears an end, and coming to terms with their current self. Michael Ondaatje, the author, presents each character like an onion which the reader discovers better by peeling each layer of their past. The author takes us through the struggles of Kirpal Singh (Kip), a Sikh from Lahore (part of erstwhile India), who abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor and joined the army. He also gets the reader indulged in the notoriety of Caravaggio’s life and Hana’s journey into adulthood from Toronto to where she is now, in the war. The story of the English Patient is sprayed as a mystery that keeps unfolding to the very last.
What’s beautiful about the book is the language that delves deep into each character that in no way feels this is restricted to a central plot. There are journeys within each and as a reader, you get to go into every one of them. The book is more of a gallery with a painting for each character that pops up in the 300-odd pages of this book.
If you enjoy words, this book is for you. There’s a slow brew of a romance not only between characters but is also felt when you read these characters. The author succeeds in making you fall in love with each of them. At least I did.
This is a page-turner for sure and long after having finished the book, I find myself thinking about Kip riding the triumph in Italy to Hana writing about the men secretly to Caravaggio’s past life and even the English patients’ love for Katherine.
It won the Booker prize and there’s a movie based on the book as well which I’m definitely going to watch soon.