Review: The English Patient — Michael Ondaatje

Read: 12
To Go: 88

Book List:
11. Behaving Badly — Isabel Wolff
12. The English Patient — Michael Ondaatje

“Top 50 38 Romantic Lines” read: 4/38

With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip; each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal, and rescue illuminate this book like flashes of lightning.

Romantic quote: “Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book” (Ondaatje 155).

Firstly: thank you, Carolyn, for lending me this novel. I love friends who loan me novels. (Hint hint, nudge nudge…)

So I’ll give you the down-low, guys: I’m super exhausted. I read two books in one day (revel in my awesomeness) and I’m really tired and not at all impressed with this book, so I will be giving you the quick and dirty on The English Patient.

I keep trying to find creative or interesting ways to start this review, and I just keep circling back to the word “no.” It pretty much sums up my feelings about The English Patient. No, it was, disappointingly, not romantic. No, I did not enjoy it. No, I did not even comprehend it, for the most part. No, no, no.

Sensing a theme here?

I think what barred me from liking the book — or, hell, even understanding it — was the ridiculous use of punctuation (more like the lack of punctuation). It read the back-end of a James Joyce novel (hello, Ulysses) because not one quotation mark was used. (Well, that’s a stretch. Occasionally they were used, but more often than not they were completely disregarded.) I just have a really hard time understanding when the dialogue is taking place if no one indicates it! And it really ticks me off when there is apparently a back-and-forth happening and I don’t realize until two pages later because there were absolutely no quotation marks to be seen. Anywhere. Ever.

I, personally, find that when authors experiment with lack of punctuation, it tends to alienate the reader — or, at least, it alienates me. I can’t connect with something I can’t understand. More often than not, my eyes glazed over for full paragraphs because the story had just stopped making sense and, naturally, I’d stopped caring about anyone. Because if I can’t tell who’s talking, I can’t get a feel for them as a character.

Also, The English Patient became totally incomprehensible because of its total lack of narrative structure, mostly where tenses were concerned. There was third-person past tense, third-person present tense, first-person past and present tense; you name it, it was included — and usually all these different tenses were within paragraphs of each other. Like, God help me get through that.  I can usually deal with jumping from past to present, and switching character perspectives, but it’s much harder to deal with time and character shifts when the tenses in which the story is written are changing more rapidly than the narrative arc is progressing.

On page 244, the English patient is speaking to Caravaggio about his past and actually switches from telling his story in first person to doing it in third person (at this point I figured it had to be Ondaatje’s way of acknowledging the absurdity of his book). When the patient makes the style-switch, Caravaggio asks himself, “Who is he speaking as now?” (Ondaatje).

I’m sure you can understand why I laughed. I’d been asking myself the same question for the entire novel.

Next book: I’m always inclined to say “something short,” but since I’ve read two novels in less than two days, I’m thinking of reading something longer. I’m ahead of schedule.

– Kelsey

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One thought on “Review: The English Patient — Michael Ondaatje

  1. Hahahaha, it’s funny, this is one of those books people either love or hate. There’s no inbetween feeling for this one. I loved it, but it is bizarre, as is a lot of Ondaatje’s work. But I found it beautiful and almost dreamlike, and read it almost in a single sitting. But I can see why it annoys people so much, too… 😛

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