The English Patient

by Michael Ondaatje

Hardcover, 1992

Call number




Alfred A. Knopf (1992), Edition: 1st, 307 pages


The Booker Prize-winning novel, now a critically acclaimed major motion picture, starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe and Kristin Scott Thomas. With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal, and rescue illuminates this book like flashes of heat lightening.

Media reviews

Where was Rebecca shot?
... the plane must have been drying out under its tarpaulin in the desert for eight years. It is entirely covered with sand. Almasy `digs' it out : with what? ... Having shifted tons of sand ... he moves, single-handed, the plane out on to the level, so it can take off. How, single-handed, does he `swing the prop'? ... sand would have penetrated moving parts of the machinery and would have to be meticulously dusted out. ... Almasy merely pours in his can of petrol -- and the engine starts!
2 more
It is a complex and confusing novel whose readers might easily want to consult the index simply to untangle the threads of the plot ... to clarify events that had another meaning ... in an earlier context.
Una vez oí a una mujer africana decir que no se podía describir África, que África solo se entiende si se ha vivido allí. Hace años ya de aquel momento y, sin embargo, esas palabras se me han quedado grabadas y las recuerdo con frecuencia. Por ejemplo, me han venido a la memoria al leer El paciente inglés, de Michael Ondaatje, y no solo porque hable de lo que supone atravesar el desierto de Libia, algo inimaginable para nuestras cabezas acostumbradas a vidas sencillas, sino porque además transmite el peso de la guerra, un hecho también inconcebible para los que siempre hemos vivido en paz.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jewelryladypam
I didn't like this writer's style at all and, therefore, couldn't finish the book.

While his prose was beautiful and flowery in one respect, after a while it became overdone and hard to understand. This kind of writing is better suited to his poetry but not to a novel.

The author's overuse of simple pronouns (he, she) as opposed to actual names (Hana, Caravaggio, Kip) or descriptive occupations (nurse, thief, sapper), as well as the author's frequent use of flashbacks rendered me confused. I found myself constantly wondering "who are we talking about?" or "when did that happen - now or in the past?" and I kept going over the same passages several times to clarify things.

I wanted to keep reading, I wanted to know what happened, and I wanted to finish the book, but just couldn't.


The above is what I had written at the point when I had put the book down, I thought for good. That was at about page 100.

However, I had read enough of this story that it kind of stuck with me and I wanted to know more. So I kept reading. In my opinion, it didn't get any better as I got farther into it.

The writing was very confusing, the story skipped around too much, the prose was overdone, and the end, I was left with a big "huh?" as my ultimate response to this book.

It was too bad, because I had high expectations for this book and I couldn't wait to read it based on the back-cover description.
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
Ondaatje's prose is beguiling to say the least. Here he has told a story that like real life, is a fusion of many characteristics. This is a blend of love, peace, war, secrets, history, spies, memories, set in post-war Tuscany. Having poetic language, a good story, and Ondaatje’s inimitable languid air, this was engaging, but in a slow-moving, ethereal way in which a tragedy almost slipped in under the radar. In a strange way, spots that were implausible added to the shadowy quality rather than detracting.… (more)
LibraryThing member fiverivers
I come late to reading award-winning author, Michael Ondaatje, and decided to discover his story-telling ability through a familiar tale, that of the award-winning film made from his novel, The English Patient.

I have been captivated by the film for years. I can now say I have been captivated by Ondaatje's novel. Unlike the film, the novel examines the lives and relationships of Hana, Caravaggio and Kip, rather than the love story between Almasy and Katherine.

Ondaatje's research and presentation of the final days of the Italian Campaign of WWII is impeccable and beautifully presented. There is very much a sense of suspension in the story, of lives on hold, of the last breath before the long exhale of release. There is also a remarkable sense of ambiguity in the story, of the search for meaning when in fact there is none. There is only survival and moments of beauty in between.

This is a deceptively powerful novel, deceptively powerfully written.
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LibraryThing member Greatrakes
This English Patient; me English impatient.

I don't remember the last time I just couldn't be bothered to finish a book. Nothing happens in this book - or, at least, in the first half.

I believe I'm supposed to be enjoying the beautiful writing, but it seems like flowery windbaggery to me. I enjoy slow moving books, I don't mind plot-less books, but I have to be given something to chew on, and if neither plot, nor pace, then it has to be character. I was given no-one to believe in here, just fey, soft-focus people drifting past Merchant Ivory film sets.

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LibraryThing member browner56
In the last days of World War II, four broken people come together in the ruins of an Italian villa that recently served as both a German stronghold and an Allied hospital. One man, burned beyond recognition in the Egyptian desert, is being cared for by a young nurse who carries emotional scars of her own. A disfigured thief who was a friend of the nurse’s father and a British army sapper who remains obsessed with defusing unexploded bombs as he runs from his youth complete the unlikely quartet of protagonists. With lyrical prose and evocative images, “The English Patient” develops the tale of the moment in time between separate pasts and divergent futures when their lives come together for awhile.

This is not linear story-telling, nor is it a book that should be read quickly. Rather, the novel shifts perspectives and time frames over a 15 year period to reveal its secrets in a gradual, languorous manner. Although other reviewers have criticized it as disjointed and confusing, I found the author’s writing style to be pitch-perfect; the characters have all suffered profound losses and traumas and their memories come to them when and how their cathartic healing processes allow. Indeed, Ondaatje has created an atmospheric, fully imagined world, artfully blending historical fact with his fiction.

I write this review after reading “The English Patient” for a second time, about 20 years after its publication. Of course, there is always a danger when you re-read a book you loved at an earlier stage of your life; the words on the page may not change, but the reader certainly does. In this case, though, I found even more to admire about the novel. Perhaps because I already knew the story this time—I have seen the movie now as well—it was easier for me to appreciate the subtle and graceful way that the author developed the main themes of enduring love, returning to life after tragedy, and the healing power of memory. I also saw that this was a poignant, bittersweet coming-of-age story for two of the characters, something I missed altogether before.

Overall, I found this to be an extraordinary novel, full of passages and imagery that were simply beautiful, sometimes heart-achingly so. The book swept me away to another time and place when I read it the first time and it did the same thing again two decades later. It so richly deserves all of the acclaim it has received over the years.
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LibraryThing member Polaris-
I remember reading this circa '95 by the red dimmer light of a tank interior inbetween manoeuvres in the desert. Very diverting reading. I think I left my copy under the seat....
LibraryThing member wellsie
“The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names...”
The same might be said of the characters in The English Patient. For this is a beautiful, artfully crafted novel about the mapping of identity within borders, set before and during World war two when borders were in continual flux and territorial conquest and possession were the name of the game. The narrative, like the abandoned villa in which the characters take refuge and the fateful cave where the paintings of swimmers are discovered (even the desert/sea boundary has shifted over time), is a construction of haunting echoes. Ondaatje continually brings back the narrative to memory, the most secret and probably defining element of self and thus continually shows us how shifting are the borders of self. Nationality, another form of mapping identity, especially in wartime, is another prevailing theme of the novel. Kip, as an Indian sapper in the British army, straddles another drawn line. He has never felt accepted by the British as a whole though he has two English friends with whom he feels very close – Ondaatje again showing us how history’s borders are arbitrary and can be individually breached. Nevertheless he will always feel excluded, as if detained by customs. Love, not nationality, will provide him with his most vivid sense of self – undone ultimately by another impersonal act of history. The English Patient isn’t English at all, he’s a Hungarian count, and his nationality too will ultimately exclude him from his heart. He himself pastes and writes his own fragmented history into his battered copy of Herodotus’ Histories. A contrast between the conventional narrative of history with its battles and leaders and shifting allegiances and personal history made up of secret epiphanies and tragedies of timing. Together with Hana, a young nurse mourning the death of her brother and Caravaggio, a spy, thief and morphine addict Almasey, the so-called English patient, and Kip take refuge in the Tuscan villa which becomes a kind of haven where they speak to each other’s private selves and are thus able to draw up truer maps of their individual histories, until the outside world and its insistence on arbitrary stifling demarcation lines once again intervenes.
Also has to be said that Ondaatje’s prose is as rhythmically mesmerising and inspired as Virginia Woolf or Don Delillo at their best.
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LibraryThing member raistlinsshadow
This was really a beautiful book, and is quite possibly the best book I've ever read for school. The prose is written in a very poetic fashion that makes the whole story seem very ethereal, very surreal.

Part of the story is romantic, and the other part is more like a war story; it takes place in Italy just after World War II ends and revolves around four characters. The ending is satisfying but still somewhat lacking, I found, and there are times where the war stories seem to run a little long, but other than that, it's a really excellent book.… (more)
LibraryThing member lkernagh
I am rather late coming to this one. I have never seen the film adaptation so I was able to approach this book "sight unseen". A wonderful story and yet, so difficult to review. As with most character-driven stories, the pacing here is languid. Everything seems to happen at half speed, as if moving through liquid. The story is not designed to be rushed through. It is to be slowly savored. Ondaatje's prose is lush and sensual. Our four characters are windows into damaged souls of war-ravaged individuals, with each one seeking, in their own way, release/redemption and the courage to try and pick up the war shattered pieces of their lives.

Overall, a beautiful, haunting story set at the tail end of World War II.
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LibraryThing member 9days
Honestly, I could go on and on about how much I love this book, but I'm going to try to keep this short by doing the biggest favor I can do this book: clear up the misconceptions surrounding it.

This book is not chick lit or romance. It's about people coming together in a time of war (a nurse, a Count, a Sikh sapper, and a morphine addicted thief/spy. No, this is not the beginning of a joke).

The aspects I found most interesting were the parts dealing with African exploration and sapping (dismantling bombs and mines). In fact, this book led me to want to read more about World War II.

But the highlight is Ondaatje's writing. I have never encountered such a fantastic example of poetic prose. And the author has an uncanny ability to describe small moments that most of us don't even notice we're noticing (I swear, it makes sense).

So, to anyone who would be put off this book on account of preconceived notions (thank you again, Hollywood), just give it a chance. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
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LibraryThing member SavannahC
An amazing book. I'd definately recommend this too people, especially since I finished it in under three days. Parts of it were a little confusing just because of the fact that it jumped back and forth through people's perspectives, but other than that the story was amazing. Sad, happy, and inlightening all in on. Michael Ondaatje puts you into the time period, right after the second World War. The English patient's unknown identity only adds to the drama of a mystery. I loved it. I'm so happy I finished the book, because now I can watch the movie! :)… (more)
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
This book didn't really do it for me. While it attempted to be literary and poignant, I felt that it got lost along the way. There were some nice phrases and poetic passages, but apart from this I ultimately felt let down as a reader. I wouldn't really recommend the book, it did not hold significant value in my eyes.

2 stars.
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LibraryThing member monarchi
Despite its position as one of Ondaatje's most famous novels, I found The English Patient less convincing than what I had read previously (Anil's Ghost, Running in the Family, Coming Through Slaughter). Maybe this is because of the oddly shifting times and locations of the narrative, or the choice of an unfamiliar setting, or the fact that although much of the story is told from a female character's point of view, she never feels like a woman — but rather a man's image of a woman.

Whatever the reason, I found this book more of a struggle than I expected (hence the perhaps overly low rating.) Nonetheless, the beauty of Ondaatje's prose holds throughout, and his ability to evoke images of exotic times and places is used to full force in this book. I recommend first-time Ondaatje readers start elsewhere, and work their way back to this one.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
Sometimes, a movie can do a story better justice than the book. It’s a rarity indeed, but I believe it to be the case with The English Patient.

I watched the movie nine years ago. I was hugely pregnant, curled up on my sofa and enraptured by this Oscar-winning film of war, love and sacrifice. Having enjoyed the movie, I longed to read the book, and The English Patient finally found itself on my reading list.

Don’t get me wrong; the book was not bad. Parts of it were artistic and introspective with compelling characters. Hana was sad but still had a lust for life; Kip was lost but ready to move on; Caravaggio finally found a purpose for this conniving ways. But the English Patient and his beloved Katharine remained a secret to me. I could never wrap my arms around their relationship. It seemed destructive and loveless, but so little was written about it that I could never tell. To me, this gap was too large to ignore.

Where Michael Ondaatje blossomed with The English Patient was illustrating the destructiveness of war on the soldiers, nurses, civilians and cities involved. War is hell on everyone, and this story drove this point home very well.

If you are a fan of Booker winners, than The English Patient might be one for you; however, I believe the movie is a better way to witness this story. The book, in effect, fell short for me.
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LibraryThing member lit_chick
“A novel is a mirror walking down the road.” (91)

Unfortunately for me, the road that is The English Patient did not hold my attention. I have an irritating habit in that I can find any number of insignificant things to do when I am disinterested in what I am supposed to be doing; this was my behavior as I read The English Patient.

The novel certainly has the ingredients for a spellbinding story: devastation of war, the burdensome politics of nations, desert intrigue, and passionate love. It brings together at the end of WWII four disparate characters who are living in an abandoned Italian villa: an unidentified man, burnt beyond recognition; Hana, a young Canadian nurse; Caravaggio, a thief turned spy; and Kip, a Sikh bomb disposal technician. Framed within this reality are the memories of the “English patient” who recalls elaborate desert expeditions and an illicit love affair with the wife of a colleague. His passion for the desert is mesmerizing:

“The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries.” (138)

Still, The English Patient simply did not flow for me. I’d pick up a strand in one of its many layers, excited to read on, only to lose the strand again in the next moment. I enjoy a layered and complex story; but this one distracted me so often that I finally lost interest.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
This is a book to be read and treasured over a long weekend; it's filled with graceful heart-rending language and utterly believable characters who are as beautiful and full as they are broken. The more slowly you read this, and the more closely you read this, the more you'll gain from and appreciate it. Ondaatje's language is poetic and masterful, and nothing I could say here can do it justice. This is a book worth reading and rereading.… (more)
LibraryThing member thebacklistbook
I strongly recommend reading this if you want a solid sample of how to do a multiple points of view narration style. This is however the only thing I can recommend it for.

I had to read this for a class. it deals with heavy subject matter including PTSD and war. I found myself really struggling through it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lisuebie
Smooth, elegant language. Cool, delicate. Not gripping. Others find it brilliant.
LibraryThing member hockeycrew
Pretty story but not my favorite style of writing... almost too poetic.
LibraryThing member fieldnotes
Just about every major character in this book is self-sacrificing to the point of abstract goodness without traction. Saintliness makes numerous appearances in character sketches and many actions are drenched in its overtones. This robs the book of any real driving tension--unless you are truly concerned with the English Patient's mysterious identity, which the author almost too obviously wants you to realize should not be the point.

It makes sense that the period immediately following WWII would be saturated in an unabsorbable diminishing of tensions and that people who had come to feel like they were aligned against forces and armies rather than individuals become a bit anchorless and developmentally stuck. If it was Ondaatje's goal to conjure up this environment in his dream-filled, morphine-soaked Italian villa that is conveniently free of any intrusions from the outside world, then he was successful. But, I don't know; I have a problem with the fact that all four of the major characters are essentially fearless. I can get over them not having any real vices and them having excuses for everything questionable that they do; but the stoicism/heroism and determination that they all display is spread around too generously and makes the characters less believable.

That said, the prose was consistently fine throughout and the well-researched passages about defusing explosive devices were both memorable and arresting. Also, even if I would have liked a bit more texture to the characters, Ondaatje understands the way people interact with one another, he understands where, how and why they construct boundaries, what they choose to remember and why they fail to communicate. He builds the novel around the small, unspoken and selfish needs of his characters (attention, distraction, accuracy, belonging) and his sensitivity and insight in this area absolutely sustains the novel. I enjoyed "In the Skin of a Lion" considerably more. And, for the record, the movie did not impact my reading of this book; because I scarcely remembered it.
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LibraryThing member Clurb
Better than the film in so very many ways.
LibraryThing member jimphelps
This is a wonderful book. Ondaatje unveils his story one thin layer at a time. He exposes this story like a fog slowly burning out of a valley until the details of the landscape are exposed to sun.
LibraryThing member brendaough
This is one of the best novels I have ever read in my life; absolutely beautiful, very poetic and moving.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
It isn't often that a movie will inspire me to go out and read the source material; often, it happens that I'll see or hear a reference to something else, and chase that instead. For example, "Star Trek - The Wrath of Khan," a classic of its genre but hardly on Ebert's top 100, caused me to go and find - and read - "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Moby Dick." Without the impetus I don't think I'd have done it.

"The English Patient" - the novel, that is - goes even further than the film did over the course of nearly three hours of running time. The biggest benefit to all of this is the increased attention paid to our friendly-neighbourhood Indian bomb-defuser. His backstory is fleshed-out, making him a rather compelling character.

The story itself is the one that people the world over fell in love with when it was presented to them on celluloid. I found the imagery every bit as strong in the book, and I am immensely pleased to have taken the time to read it.
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LibraryThing member cinesnail88
This novel still remains a bit of a puzzle to me, even after I have finished it. Like Harris' Chocolat, the novel not only left a lot to be desired but also completely defied my expectations - but not necessarily in a bad way. The book overall was intriguing, with Kip being a favorite. In the end, I'm still puzzled though...




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