Saturday, July 16, 2011

1992 - The English Patient

It’s a different experience, reading a novel after seeing the film first. As I lost myself in the pages of The English Patient I could see the thin, taut faces of the characters as they were in the film, and I could see how perfectly the adaptation and casting had captured the brittleness of the world they inhabited. My own mother is the only other one I know ever to so perfectly explain the sense of living for the fragile moment during the Second World War. Perhaps that was because she too had a sense of perspective about human life that came from a love of wild, desolate places, indifferent and unforgiving…

The English Patient won the Governor General’s Award in Canada and shared the Booker Prize with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger in 1992. It’s an enchantment, one that made it very difficult for me to tear myself away from it. So you can imagine my astonishment when I saw some consumer reviews that claimed to have hated the book, dismissing it as pretentious or frustrating. I didn’t read much of this criticism (too depressing! too inane!) but I got the impression that these readers disliked having to ‘put together pieces of a jigsaw’.

Well, there are readers who like things to be straightforward (as if life is like that) and there are those who enjoy a carefully constructed artifice that gradually reveals the complexity of characters and events. In this tale of four people damaged by the loss of innocence that inevitably accompanies war, Ondaatje has woven fragments of their past lives into their uncertain present as they themselves reveal it (as, in life, we do). It is a beautiful story which creates a romantic setting out of a ruined Italian villa booby-trapped by the mines of the retreating German army, and juxtaposes it with the pre-war heroic age of discovery in the harsh deserts of Egypt and Libya.

To read the rest of my review, please visit my ANZ LitLovers blog.
I read and blogged this Booker Prize winner on July 17th 2011.
Cross-posted at GoodReads.
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers


  1. I've always found that the criticism was more directed at the opacity for the sake of opacity in the novel, rather than the non-linear aspects or the ethereal or oneiric feel. Personally, I felt the prose to be strong and the rest of the novel to be weak. It seemed that the author didn't care about the characters; it was merely an excuse to write beautiful descriptions of the villa. But that's just me.

  2. Great review. I think you summed up the book's appeal well, as well as the reasons it's not for everybody :-)