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The English Patient

February 12, 2017

I just finished the book The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.  In fact, I read it twice.  Each time I finished the novel, I felt as though I’d been through the war and had been changed by the experience.  I’d also seen the movie made from the novel, but I thought the book was better.  In the movie, some images popped up on the screen that made no sense to me until I’d read the novel.

The story is set in 1945, the last year of world war two, in a bombed-out villa in Italy.  Four people are living there.  One is the English patient, a man burned black from head to toe.  He’s a desert explorer, but won’t tell anyone which one he is.  There’s also Hana, a Canadian nurse who is looking after the English patient.  She’s deeply affected by the war, and all the wounded and dying patients she had to look after.  They’re joined by Caravaggio, an Italian thief who had known Hana before the war.  The last of the four is a young Sikh sapper who has joined the British army.  He’s an expert in defuzing bombs and mines left by the retreating German army.

Each of them has a story to tell.  The English patient talks about his travels in the North African desert, and his romantic attachment to Katherine, the wife of another desert explorer.  Only at the end of the book does he reveal his true identity, and which side he was working for.  Hana describes her experiences as a nurse following the advancing troops, and how she coped with those traumatic events.  Caravaggio tells how he worked as a spy for the British during the war, and how he was captured by the Germans.  Kip, the Sikh sapper, describes his training in defuzing bombs in England, and his effort in building temporary bridges across rivers in Italy.  He has mixed feelings in working for the British, who are also the colonial rulers in his homeland of India.

The book ends suddenly and dramatically, as the war in the Pacific ends with the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan.  Hana and Kip both move on to new lives, but neither can forget what happened in that villa in Italy.  I, the reader, was affected too.  It was a masterful piece of writing.


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