Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 17, 2011

The English Patient (1992), by Michael Ondaatje, Winner of the Booker Prize in 1992

1st Edition

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.

In the villa, we meet the shell-shocked nurse, Hana, as she – heedless of danger – cares for the enigmatic patient burned beyond recognition or hope, who might or might not be English.  In the desert from which he came nationalities do not matter, but in war they do, and it is the maimed thief Caravaggio who for his own reasons seeks the means to unlock the patient’s reticence.  They are joined by a young Sikh sapper, Kip, heroically clearing away the perilous detritus of war in the last days of an era not yet plagued by bombs too awesome ever to clear away.

The passions and betrayals of individuals reveal the ways that Great Powers betrayed humanity too.   The malice with which the Germans mined their retreat was yet another of their many crimes against humanity, but Ondaatje (whose background is Sri Lankan) also condemns the casual racism which informed Allied decisions about who and what was expendable in war.  All this, written in the most exquisite prose, is laced with allusions to great writers from Herodotus to Kipling, but my favourite is his quotation from Paradise Lost:

These then, though unbeheld in deep of night,
Shine not in vain, nor think, though men were none,
That Heav’n would want spectators, God want praise;
Millions of spiritual Creatures walk the Earth
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep:
All these with ceaseless praise his works behold
Both day and night: how often from the steep
Of echoing Hill or Thicket have we heard
Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to other’s note
Singing their great Creator.
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, cited on p144)

(I especially liked this when I read it this morning because last night I went to an Astronomy night with The Spouse.  All the computer generated images and scientific talk of light years and whatnot made me yearn to wander outside and just admire the mystery of the stars instead of dissecting the universe.)

Sacred Hunger must be a wonderful book to have shared the Booker Prize with The English Patient.  It’s next on my list of Booker winners to read!

The English Patient is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Michael Ondaatje
Title: The English Patient
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 1992
ISBN: 9780747512547 (First Edition)
Source: Personal copy

PS  If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, do not look it up on Wikipedia which reveals the key spoiler in its first paragraph *sigh*.


  1. I totally agree with you Lisa. Loved the book and the film. A beautiful love story.


    • Actually, I’ve just added the film to my Q at QuickFlix, I want to see it again now!


      • That’s a shame re Wikipedia – spoilers are allowed because it is an encyclopedia but I don’t think it should be in the introduction. It should be in the Plot so that if you don’t want a spoiler you don’t read plot. You could add a comment to the Discussion Page suggesting that spoiler info be contained in the plot section only.

        Loved the book and the movie but read and saw them so long ago now that I can’t comment in any serious way. I do like Ondaatje. Have read three of his books … he has a lovely style, great characters and tends to have an interesting structure at well.


        • Yes, I agree, and it’s the first time I’ve come across a spoiler where you can’t avoid it on Wikipedia.
          What else have you read, Sue? I’ve only read The Skin of a Lion, and that was excellent.


          • I haven’t read his earlier ones and would like to. I’ve read Anil’s ghost which, as I recollect was set in Sri Lanka, and Divisadero which was partly set in California.


  2. I’m not very sensitive to nuance in film and tend to murmur remarks like ‘beautifully shot’ in a helpless kind of way. So the novel was a revelation to me, and I was very glad that I had read it. But even at the slower pace of a novel I didn’t feel that I had grasped everything that Ondaatje weaves into his complex narrative.

    It is the only novel I have read by him, which leads to the slightly superstitious fear that none of his other novels could possibly be as good…


    • *chuckle* I know what you mean, Sarah. I’m not much of a film aficionado either. I can never remember the names of the actors, much less the directors. I wouldn’t have had anything to say about the film adapation of this one except that I remembered it so vividly…that sweeping opening sequence of the desert, and the scene where the Oxford Don is swept up to look at the frescos. And they were all so thin and angst-ridden!


  3. I did enjoy this book when I read it in grad school. I think I like some of his other books even better, though. Thanks for this review. Maybe I should read it again or actually see the movie! =)

    -Miss GOP


    • Hi Penny, welcome to chatting about books at ANZLL:)
      I feel that way about quite a few books that I read at University. There were some that I didn’t like that I suspect I now would enjoy, and there are others that I didn’t really understand because I was too young and too inexperienced as a reader. I need my time there over again!


  4. I did not like the movie at all, so approached the book with a great deal of trepidation. I wish I hadn’t spent so long putting off reading it, though, because I thought it was a beautiful book.

    I really must try reading another Ondaatje book.


    • Hi Tania – there are quite a few things that mystified me in the film that I understand now. Reading the book makes such a difference!


  5. I read this before I watched film ,It is one of my all time favourite books lisa I like the drifting sense of it from africa to italy and back and the count is such an intriguing central character ,the mutliple threads of srtories past and present ,as for film I do think it is one of the best adaptations of a novel ever ,all the best stu


  6. I loved The English Patient, and yes- Sacred Hunger is very, very good as well.


  7. I re-read In the Skin of a Lion last year and was thrilled to find it just as challenging and beautiful and haunting as I did when I first read it as a teenager. Last year also brought his most recent novel onto my stacks and I actually really loved that as well, though in a different way (with less nostalgia and more outright admiration). TEP is one that I need to re-read because I know that I didn’t have the proper attention for it when I read it many years back; I know it will be worth the wait!


  8. it is a wonderful book.. a masterpeice .. a flawless beauty are for sure going to fall in love with every character of this book.Mr Ondaatje has presented a gift to all of us in the form f this book, he has given me all my favourite things, history,mystery , war time, something that compels you to thing , joy…
    if you are reading this dont think twice .. buy it ..
    coming from a 17 year old kid..


    • Hello, yes, I agree that it’s a masterpiece:)


  9. […] 1992: The English Patient, see my review […]


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