Some of the English love Africa. A part of their brain reflects the desert precisely. So they’re not foreigners there.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is set at the end of World War II in a villa outside of Florence that had been converted into a hospital. As the fighting moved north the hospital was abandoned except by two individuals who refuse to leave despite the villa crumbling down around them. Soon they are joined by two more and thus begins the chance intertwining of lives for a short while.
There is the English patient, a man whose plane crashed over the desert and who was saved by Bedouins. He can remember encyclopedias of information, but claims he cannot recall who he is. There is Hana, a nurse from Canada, who has given up on life after hearing of her father’s death. When the others go north with the war, it is Hana who stays behind with the burn victim who she insists is in too fragile a state to move. Soon the two are joined by Caravaggio, Hana’s father’s best friend who just happens to overhear a tale of the shell-shocked nurse refusing to leave the villa. A thief by trade and a heroic spy in the war when his thieving skills were put to use, Caravaggio was caught by the Germans and had his thumbs amputated in retribution, effectively putting an end to his livelihood. And finally they are joined by the loner Kip, a young Sikh from India whose job it is travel through Italy dismantling the thousands of active mines left behind.
I really wanted to like this book. It had all of the components you need for a good read: a love story between Kip and Hana. A story of intrigue as Caravaggio tries to get to the bottom of who the English patient really is – English soldier or infamous German spy? A story of friendship as these people from different walks of life are brought together and are able to form a close bond over their shared experiences of war and loss.
Unfortunately, for me it all fell flat. I didn’t really care for any of the characters. They most certainly weren’t one-dimensional, but there was just something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. The flashbacks throughout the second half of the book, meant to give a deeper understanding of the characters, were pretty boring. I don’t need to read pages describing the way Kip defuses bombs or have a geology lesson of north Africa. And at the very end it got a little in-your-face preachy — lessons could have been taught in a much more subtle way.
So all in all I wouldn’t say it was an awful read, but it didn’t leave me feeling much of anything, which was definitely the book’s aim.
He’s never sure what an eye reveals. But he can read how mouths darken into callousness, suggest tenderness. One can often misjudge an eye from its reaction to a simple beam of sunlight.