I just finished The English Patient last night, and I’m not sure how to accurately describe or respond to it. It’s full of many threads and stories that seemingly converge on one scene, only to dip back and forth in timelines and stories that don’t connect to each other at all.
There are at least four stories that unravel and torse on each other: there’s Hana, a young woman who finds herself nursing soldiers in Italy, and refuses to leave the villa-turned-hospital one everyone’s evacuated; Caravaggio, the Canadian thief who knew Hana’s family back home, and is trying to make sense of himself, Hana, and the War; Kip, the sapper who has come from India to defuse bombs for the Allies; and then, there’s the Patient himself. Burned all over his body, he is known only as an Englishman who survived a terrible plane crash in northern Africa. His story is the fulcrum upon which the novel turns, and serves as the mystery the others engage themselves in.
Who is the English patient? Who is the woman in the background of his story? How did he become so badly burned? Why was he in Africa? These all become somewhat evident by the end of the novel, though Ondaatje’s narrative makes easy answers impossible, and ultimately, undesirable.
The prose is stunning in its roundabout refusal to convey a straightforward narrative, and Ondaatje employs characters that reveal more about each other, and something about human nature as well. If your taste runs to the postmodern and experimental, with a dash of classical literature (think The French Lieutenant’s Woman or The Remains of the Day), then I can pretty much guarantee you will like this novel as much as I did.