Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

January 9, 2022

      I’m in several minds about this novel, which many people rate highly and which I’ve effortlessly avoided for the last 30 years but have now read because it’s our book group choice for January. For me, it joins the list of oddball takes on the Second World War in novels, perhaps the most successful of which is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an eminently forgettable one, for me at least.

It’s well-written: I like the ways Ondaatje uses the language to create atmosphere, particularly through the use of the impersonal ‘he’ and ‘she’. At times I felt a sense of showiness with so many names and places and foreign terms, and the narrative often felt too disjointed and disconnected, overly impressionistic. I could see the effect the writer wanted to achieve… The muddling of the story strands and the various timeshifts made for an oddly compelling narrative involving the isolated individuals in the Italian villa; it took quite a while, but eventually the interplay between the four very different characters began to work for me. This setting seemed to echo the isolation of the characters in the desert sections which I liked very much (well, I would, wouldn’t I?)

For me, by far the most interesting character was Kip, the Sikh sapper. I liked his inscrutability and his personality came across very well via the narrative style; the ending of his storyline was very powerful and moving, even more so because of the effect and message of the previous book I read (see the last post above). Even so, I found myself wondering if this interest in him was triggered by all the boys’ stuff, bombs and bomb disposal and so on.

And yet… somewhere I remain unsatisfied. I’m glad I read the book, in the end, but there was a certain self-consciously arty archness about it which I couldn’t shake off, and the quite sudden degeneration into an unpicking of the different spies mystery as the identity of the English patient became clear, I found really annoying. But the ending was unexpected and powerful because of that. It feels like a novel that needs a re-read to become clearer and yet I don’t really see myself finding the time.

One Response to “Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient”


  1. […] reaction to The English Patient has had me thinking. Regular and long-term readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally […]

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