Thursday, November 6, 2008

The English Patient: A Book Review

I know this is my second book review in two weeks, but I happened to finish this book the day after I finished Captain Corelli's Mandolin. You might wonder why, on a needlework blog, I talk about books. The answer is two-fold. One, I am participating in the 1% Well-Read Challenge where we are reading one book per month on the 1,001 Books To Read Before You Die List. And two, I suppose it's because reading is another love of my life and I'm often listening to books on my Ipod while I stitch.

Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize in 1993 for this novel, The English Patient. Ondaatje writes with beautifully constructed prose using lots of imagery and mystique. He writes in a revelatory style, believing that "truth" should be discovered by the reader but not told outright.

The entire story takes place in an abandoned hospital in Northern Italy during WWII where a 20 year old nurse, Hana is taking care of an "unknown" patient who has been burned beyond recognition but is presumed to be "English" due to his accent. Hana has lost both her father and her lover to the war and has become somewhat hardened to loss through watching hundreds of war-torn soldiers die in her arms. Her father was a burn victim and died alone and we are left to surmise that this may be one major reason she stays behind to care for the English Patient when the rest of the hospital staff evacuate the ruins of the bombed-out hospital. We're never quite sure what her motivation for staying is and someone else, having read this book, might have a completely different theory.

There are two other characters in the story. The first is Caravaggio, a friend of Hana's deceased father and notorious thief, now retired after losing both of his thumbs in a war-related incident. The second one is Kip, an India sapper working for the British army whose job it is to defuse bombs in the Italian countryside. So, there you have it. Four characters, one setting.

We are often transported out of this setting through the morphine-induced memories of the English Patient. Frankly, this is the best and most juicy part of the story. It is also the part that I remember most from the movie -- tales of English explorers in the Egyptian desert, an adulterous love affair, jealousy, airplane crashes - this part kind of has it all.

This book does not answer all questions and the ending kind of fades away, much like I presume that the life of the English Patient does as well. If you love a beautifully written book where the story is not spoon-fed but the reader is challenged to "find" the story, then you will love this book. If you don't like to be left with unanswered questions, then this book is likely to frustrate you.

I find I have to be prepared for this type of book by having the time to submerge myself in the story. It's not a book that you can pick up and put down. If you do, I believe the subtlety of the narrative will be lost on you and you won't be successful in discovering Ondaatje's story. I enjoyed this book very much but do have one regret. I listened to the story on my Ipod. In hindsight, I wish I had held and read the book, allowing me to reflect and review certain passages to fully absorb the story.

All in all, this is probably going to be one instance where I liked the movie better than the book. That's not to say, that I disliked the book. On the contrary, the book was captivating but it was the movie that brought this book to LIFE. Oftentimes, this book felt dreary probably due to the lack of clarity you feel in trying to piece together the story. The cinematography alone of this movie completely blows that feeling away; and conclusions are drawn in the movie script that bring clarity to the story. The movie isn't 100% true to the novel but, in this case, I think that's an advantage. The movie is most definitely on my Top 20 Favorites-of-All-Time List, I'm not sure the book makes it there.

If you'd like to read along, my next book is going to be A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, the same author who wrote The Remains of the Day (which I LOVED!!).


Judy S. said...

I loved this movie also, Susan, so much that I bought the book to read. Haven't done so yet...... I'm wondering how you'd enjoy the movie if you watched it again? Sometimes reading the book gives you fresh eyes for the movie....BTW, enjoyed both of your reviews!

Anonymous said...

I like your book reviews. and anyway who doesnt like a good book - even dedicated stitchers and beaders.

allie aller said...

Your reviews are full of clarity. What a pleasure to read them!

I read the book a long time ago...and all I remember is how steamy the sex scenes were!

Michelle Fluttering Butterflies said...

I thought the movie was beautiful but when it came to the book I was slightly disappointed. I remember reading about half of the book before I had to return it to the library. Maybe one day I'll go back and finish it.

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