Love it or Hate it: The English Patient
Have you ever noticed how some books seem to drive a wedge between people? You check the reviews and find almost no middle-of-the-road ratings. Instead people either seem to love it or hate it. Well, welcome to the Love it or Hate it post category! Each month, we’ll pick one book to review and two contributors will battle it out to convince you to pick it up or throw it out. Last time we discussed The World According to Garp. The “Love its” won with 80% of the vote. Many thanks to our reviewers. My husband, Dan, was our Love it Reviewer and Andrew (a newly added contributor) was our Hate it Reviewer.
This month’s selection is The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. It is another book that is on Boxall’s 1001 List of Books to Read Before you Die. So the question is… do you Love it or Hate it? Continue reading to find see our two reviews.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
First Published in: 1993
Find it here: The English Patient
Synopsis (from Goodreads): With unsettling beauty and intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II. The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.
Love it (Reviewer A): If you enjoy story arcs that don’t take you direct from A to Z, you’ll appreciate The English Patient. If you prefer character studies to action-fuelled dramas, this is the book for you. If you’re keen on hearing the voices of multiple narrators, this is certainly one you’ll savour. If you’re excited when all those stylistic approaches come together in one book and you love novels that pulse with emotion and meaning, you will relish The English Patient. Reading it is to experience a master storyteller at work. Ondaatje gives us four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. The villa is their refuge and a place where they hope to heal their wounds. But the dangers of the outside world are forever present. Kip searches every day for hidden explosives and trip wires around the property only to discover that more catastrophic destabilising forces lie far on the other side of the world. Ultimately none of these people can escape the reality of who they are. It’s a tale of healing and renewal, of nationality and identity, and of belonging and isolation told through beautifully constructed prose. It’s a story that deserves to be read slowly to get the full benefit of Ondaatje’s descriptive powers and depth of understanding of human nature. For me it’s one of the stand out Booker Prize winners, a novel that has stayed in my mind long after I got to the final page.
Hate it (Reviewer B): What a dog’s breakfast. There are two stories here, each of which could have been an interesting novel: Sikh bomb-disposal expert meets burned out Canadian nurse at the end of the war – the bomb disposal scenes were brilliantly written and evoked the intensity and horror of that aspect of war. The other story, also brilliantly told, is a spy story that unfolds slowly as we learn who the English Patient really is. The stories are tied together at a villa in Italy outside Naples that had been used by the Germans as a fortified position, then mined and abandoned and used by the British as a field hospital, but abandoned as too dangerous, except Hana and the English Patient both refuse to leave, then Caravaggio arrives, without really any explanation, except it turns out he is an old friend of Hana’s father, finally Kip arrives, and just sort of hangs out de-fusing mines from time to time and falling in love with Hana.
Somewhere along the way the coincidences became too much and the coherence of the book fell apart for me. Start with Hana, 20 years old and an experienced nurse? The army moves on, she says “I’ll just stay here” and everyone is okay with that? It is clear Ondaatje has little actual experience with the military. Same with the English patient – military hospitals may lose things and people, but they don’t intentionally leave patients behind because they don’t want to leave a hospital that is being abandoned because it is too dangerous. Ondaatje tries to explain this as the patient is too weak to be moved. Really? He was burned in the Libyan desert, treated with tribal medicine by Bedouins who then haul him around in the desert where he helps them out by identifying military weapons for them and matching ammunition to the weapons even though he is blind and it turns out later he has no military experience. (I am sure that Ondaatje would be shocked, but I found this whole aspect of the book condescending and, ironically given the climax, racist – poor ignorant Bedouin couldn’t figure out which bullets went in which gun until a burning white man fell from the sky to show them. Normally I wouldn’t make this point, except Ondaatje plays the race card at the end of the book, so fair’s fair.) After hauling their burned angel around the desert for a year or so, they bring him to a British Army hospital. Not able to do much for him, they of course don’t ship him to England where advanced care is available, but to a mobile Canadian medical unit supporting the front lines. Huh? You don’t need a lot of experience with the military to understand that makes no sense. Heck, all you need to have done is watch MASH a few times. That’s just not the way it works. Then after all of that, they decide he is too badly wounded to move from the place too dangerous to stay in.
Then the climax – at the end of the book Kip learns of the end of the war with Japan on his headset and is overjoyed – the war is over, he and Hana can marry, settle down, perhaps in India, perhaps in Canada, who cares, the war is over. No, no, that’s how real troops responded – especially those who were expecting to have to go fight in Japan (see, e.g., https://www.uio.no/studier/emner/hf/iakh/HIS1300MET/v12/undervisningsmateriale/Fussel%20-%20thank%20god%20for%20the%20atom%20bomb.pdf “When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live.”). Ondaatje’s Kip, however, is horrified; the white man has developed a new barbarity and of course only used it on the brown man. This is nonsense. To doubt that the U.S. would have used the atomic bomb on Germany had it been thought necessary to end the war is to ignore Dresden and even Monte Casino.
*****************END OF SPOILERS*****************
The writing is good, so if you bury the disbelief about coincidence piled on top of coincidence; if you know nothing about how militaries behave; if you accept the modern mythology about the evil of the US in ending the Second World War; and, most importantly, you believe that, as in Gone with the Wind, a decent love story covers all sins, go for it. Otherwise, life is too short, read something else. Anything else.
What do you think? Vote in our poll and tell is if you love it or hate it. If you haven’t read it, you can vote on whether you want to or not.