Review: ‘The English Patient’


The English Patient
By Michael Ondaatje

  • Date finished: October 31, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1992
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Fall 2014, Booker Award Winners
  • Grade: B-
  • Thoughts upon reading:

Finally, a book receives a less-than-stellar grade this fall. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say finally, like I was waiting for a bad book. Because I wasn’t. It’s just that some books are less awesome than others, and I knew my streak of amazing books had to end sometime.

This is not to say that The English Patient was bad, because it wasn’t … that bad. It just wasn’t … as good as it could have been? The English Patient tells the story of four individuals camping out in a ruined Italian villa in the waning days of World War II – a young Canadian nurse who’s abandoned her work to obsessively tend to one man – one they all call the English patient – who has been burnt beyond recognition. There’s also an Italian thief and former spy, and a young Indian man fighting for the British who is exceptionally talented at disarming bombs. Together, they must confront their own past and what the war had made them, while also trying to learn the identity of the English patient who carries a patched-together copy of Herotodus and speaks of deserts.

I knew of this book, obviously, because of the movie and the fact that it won the Booker Prize. Also, from the Seinfeld episode where Elaine can’t stand the book, even though everyone else is raving about it (how do I know this? I have no idea because I never watched Seinfeld! I blame the husband). The thing, is, though, I can see where the Seinfeld episode is coming from. Yes, this is a “good book”, and it’s a smart book. It’s expertly written and tackles subjects like war, and love, and betrayal. It’s a sweeping, tragic romance.  I’ve never seen the movie, but I can see where this story can seem like a “big deal” in the literary world, and how people would be falling all over themselves to talk about how they just adore it.

But, I don’t know, I guess it just wasn’t for me. I think it was because I couldn’t muster up the energy to care for these characters. Tragic figures emerging from the ruin of war isn’t a new trope, and I don’t think this book brought anything remarkably new to the table. Plus, I think I got a little confused: am I supposed to care for the four people in the villa, or is the English patient supposed to be the center of the story? And if so, how does he relate to the nurse, the thief, the bomb-disarmer? All three carry plenty of emotional baggage – most of which is explored – but they seem to operate in separate spheres. Plus, at the end, everything suddenly becomes about race – the Indian man becomes enraged when he learns the Allies have dropped atomic bombs on Japan; he accuses his three companions of siding against the brown people of the world. But before this, nothing was about race – I mean, not really. Especially in the English patient’s story, which takes place in the Sahara and should involve plenty of brown people … but it doesn’t …

You can see where my thoughts are with this book – all over the place, and not in a good way. I will say that I did enjoy the English patient’s story; it’s not often that you read that kind of story – scientists and geologists exploring the desert in the early 20th century. It seems a world full of mystery and danger, and one I’ve never really visited. Unfortunately, the rest of the book just couldn’t live up to this kind of quality. Just call me Elaine, I guess.


One thought on “Review: ‘The English Patient’

  1. Pingback: 2014: A Year in Reading | Paperback Fool

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