The English Patient

The English Patient

4.1 61
by Michael Ondaatje

View All Available Formats & Editions

Michael Ondaatje's three previous novels have each been met with the highest praise: for their startling narrative inventiveness, the richness of their imagery and emotion, and the spellbinding quality of their language. When In the Skin of a Lion was published in 1987, Carolyn Kizer, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called Ondaatje "a…  See more details below


Michael Ondaatje's three previous novels have each been met with the highest praise: for their startling narrative inventiveness, the richness of their imagery and emotion, and the spellbinding quality of their language. When In the Skin of a Lion was published in 1987, Carolyn Kizer, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called Ondaatje "a beautiful writer... brilliantly gifted." And Tom Clark wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that "Ondaatje handles fiction with the deceptive touch of a magician." Now, with The English Patient, he gives us his most stunningly original and lyric novel yet. During the final moments of World War II, in a deserted Italian villa, four people come together: a young nurse, her will broken, all her energy focused on her last, dying patient, a man in whom she has seen something "she wanted to learn, to grow into and hide in"... the patient: an unknown Englishman, survivor of a plane crash, his mind awash with a life's worth of secrets and passions ... a thief whose "skills" have made him one of the war's heroes, and one of its casualties ... an Indian soldier in the British army, an expert at bomb disposal whose three years at war have taught him that "the only thing safe is himself." Slowly, they begin to reveal themselves to each other, the stories of their pasts and of the present unfolding in scene after haunting scene, taking us into the Sahara, the English countryside, down the streets of London during the Blitz, into the makeshift army hospitals of Italy, and through the battered gardens and rooms of the villa. And with these stories, Ondaatje weaves a complex tapestry of image and emotion, recollection and observation: the paths and details of four diverse lives caught and changed and now inextricably connected by the brutal, improbable circumstances of war.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A rare and spellbinding web of dreams." —Time

"Sensuous, mysterious, rhapsodic, it transports the reader to another world . . . . Ondaatje's most probing examination yet of the nature of identity." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Mr. Ondaatje [is] one of North America's finest novelists . . . . The spell of his haunted villa remains with us, inviting us to reread passages for the pure pleasure of being there." —Wall Street Journal

Gale Research
Ranking the author among such contemporary novelists as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, Cressida Connolly in the Spectator, praises the poetic quality of Ondaatje's fiction. "The writing is so heady that you have to keep putting the book down between passages so as not to reel from the sheer force and beauty of it," the reviewer exclaims, adding that "when I finished the book I felt as dazed as if I'd just awoken from a powerful dream."
New York Times Books of the Century
...[An] intensely theatrical tour de force [that] reveals, if not a great peace at the heart of the human mystery, a vision of how heroic the struggle is.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sensuous, mysterious, rhapsodic...It transports the reader to another world.
Library Journal
Who is this wounded soldier living at an abandoned Italian villa near the end of World War II? He does not remember his name, only that he is British, but pieces of his conversation betray his knowledge. For the woman nursing him, his past does not matter. But as their twosome is invaded by two others, all focus shifts to his "true'' identity. Ondaatje deals with the culture he knows best: the British family, living in Canada, relocated during the war. Poet that he is, he replaces narrative with vivid, lyric snapshots. Listeners may have to periodically rewind the tape to recall who is who, since the four ruminating voices, narrated by actor Michael York, are seldom identified by name, and flashbacks add to the confusion. But this book is best appreciated if listeners suspend a focus on the immediate narrative line, picking up bits of the story here and there, retaining enough imagery that eventually they understand a much greater whole. As such, it's a masterpiece. -- Rochelle Ratner, formerly Poetry Editor, Soho Weekly News
Donna Seaman
A man on fire parachutes from a burning plane, crash-landing in the Sahara. He is rescued by Bedouins who wrap him in oil and felt. World War II is winding to a miserable close, and eventually the man is brought to an Allied hospital set up in an old Italian villa. When the rest of the patients and staff leave for home, a young, half-mad Canadian nurse insists on staying behind with the unidentified burn victim. Hana's grief over the suffering of the wounded and her father's death have made her crave the ravaged beauty of the villa and the still company of this silent, pain-ridden man, but an old family friend tracks her down. A thief by nature, turned spy by the war, Caravaggio was captured and tortured. This trio of the wounded and haunted becomes a quartet when they are joined by Kirpal "Kip" Singh, a Sikh serving the British as a sapper, or mine-disarmer. Ondaatje slowly reveals the past of each of these battered survivors, evoking the subtleties of their psyches from the mysterious patient's deep knowledge of the desert to Kip's sixth sense for locating and neutralizing hidden bombs. This is a poetic and solemn narrative of the horrible process of war, the discipline, displacement, loss, and sudden, desperate love. Ondaatje seems to whisper, even confess each scene to his readers, handling them gingerly like shards of shattered glass. Yet another dazzler by this accomplished novelist and poet.
Time Magazine
A rare and spellbinding web of dreams.

Read More

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.14(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.67(d)
910L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill toward the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.In the kitchen she doesn't pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.She turns into the room which is another garden--this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky.She pours calamine in stripes across his chest where he is less burned, where she can touch him. She loves the hollow below the lowest rib, its cliff of skin. Reaching his shoulders she blows cool air onto his neck, and he mutters.What? she asks, coming out of her concentration.He turns his dark face with itsgray eyes towards her. She puts her hand into her pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.

Read More

What People are saying about this

Don De Lillo
In his masterful novel, Michael Ondaatje weaves a beautiful and light-handed prose through the mingled history of the people caught up in love and war. A rich and compelling work of fiction.
Toni Morrison
Profound, beautiful, and heart-quickening.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The English Patient 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 61 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A meditation on passion, written in a formless, dreamlike, hallucinatory style. Images appear in the novel as they do in the imagination: suddenly and disquietingly. The author seems to be saying that life is as much about our internal experience as it is about the external world. Love is not this charming thing, but a desperate, agonizing crisis.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book begins with the most intriguing and hypnotic imagery I have ever found at the start of a book. A pilot standing in the wreckage of his plane, his leather helmet in flames...that image alone was enough to hook me into this finely crafted story. Ondaatje should be credited with telling more than just one excellent story in this novel, but many. The narrative pieces about Kip are excellent and he becomes a character that I wish Ondaatje would write about in a whole other novel just about him. Also, the English Patient himself with The Histories of Herodotus will be a character that remains in my memory for a long time...that book with his clippings and inserts...his relationship with Katharine...his life as enigmatic and capable of burying details and events as the desert which he loves. This novel will provide you with imagery that will stay with you long after you put the book down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a story just about love, not war, or even a love in a war. However, it seems the story did map the characters from one space to another, and made it an intricating multidimension. The story is well-plotted. Hana is not the main character, but the English patient is. In some sense to him, Hana is probably an image (or 'ghost') of Katherine, so reminds him in his memory. But, what two different characters between Hana and Katherine, and what two different loves they give a man! The story is so far from the philosophy that is commonly adopted for life. But, compared to those, I feel this one is so condensed that romances in other forms are just as vain, and I wish I could find why a person will choose a love like this. In the end, I have to admit, it is a true love, brief but lasting forever.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i'm a high school senior and i had to read the book for an english class too but i found it wonderful. not because of its lyrical style or whatever, but because for once, someone wrote about the asian point of view of WWII and showed us the gravity of the bombings in Japan. All our lives we've only been taught the Western view of what had happened and who the good guys were but we never really saw that even if Japan was trying to take over the world, there were still many innocent people who were killed just because they were living there during the war.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As soon as I finished this book it immediately became my favorite. Every sentence is beautifully crafted and evocative, keeping you completely enthralled in the story. Set in Italy near the close of World War 2, it tells the story of the English patient, who is badly burned over most of his body and confined to bed. Throughout the book, he tells Hana, his young, troubled nurse, of his life exploring and mapping the African deserts, and the love he found in the process. Hana herself is deeply haunted, having attended thousands of dying soldiers throughout the war, as well as having to cope with the death of her beloved father. Soon Hana and the English patient are joined by Carravaggio, the enigmatic thief and morphine addict who was her fathers best friend. When their strange group is completed by the young Sikh sapper, Kip, who misses his native India, friendships are formed that will change each persons life forever. Hana, far away from her homeland of Canada, finds a friend and lover in the also displaced Kip, and together the two of them discover solace in eachothers arms amid war and death. From his bed, the English patient enthralls everyone with his mysterious stories of exploration and dangerous love. Everything about this story is beautifully rich, from the characters to the words.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The setting is at Florence, Italy; but also Cairo, the Libyan Desert, and England. The time setting is in 1945 (the very end of World War 2), though the flashbacks are set throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. The main characters are Almásy is knowledgeable and reflective, the other characters reflect their thoughts and wishes told him, though he is badly burned in a plane crash, he retains all his mental faculties and is able to tell Hana, Kip, and Caravaggio the pieces of his past and the story of how he fell in love with Katharine. Hana, a young Canadian who serves the Allies as a nurse in World War II. Only twenty years old, Hana is an excellent nurse who takes good care of her patients. She has quickly learned that she must not become emotionally attached to her patients. Very close to her father, Hana had an emotional breakdown when she heard the news of his death. She falls in love with the idea of the English patient, of the thought that she is caring for a saint-like man. Her heart, however, belongs to Kip, to whom she looks for protection as she stands at the bond between childhood and adulthood. Kip a Sikh man from India who works as a 'sapper,' defusing bombs for the British forces in World War II. Kip is polite and well-mannered, and has both the skill and character to be an excellent sapper. A brown man in a white nation, Kip has grown emotionally detached, aware that people will not always react positively to him. His emotional detachment stands in the way of his relationships, most significantly his relationship with Hana. Caravaggio, a Canadian thief whose profession is rights during the war he puts his skills to use for the British intelligence effort. Caravaggio serves as a kind of surrogate father to Hana, and sheds light on the identity of the English patient. Katharine Clifton an Oxford-educated woman, the wife of Geoffrey Clifton. One of the most mysterious characters in the novel, Katharine is never fully understood. She married Geoffrey quite young and traveled with him to Northern Africa, and that she is an avid reader who learns all she can about Cairo and the desert. Though polite and genteel, Katharine nevertheless takes what she wants, assertively approaching Almásy and telling him that she wants him to 'ravish her. Geoffrey Clifton a British explorer, Katharine Clifton's husband. A young, good-natured, able man, Geoffrey is a new addition to the group of explorers who are mapping the North African desert. Geoffrey seems to have everything going for him: an Oxford education, wealthy family connections, and a beautiful young wife. He is a proud and devoted husband, and enjoys praising his wife in front of the other explorers. Goeffrey claims to have come to North Africa purely out of an interest in exploration, but Almásy finds out that Geoffrey has been working for British Intelligence as photographer. Madox, Almásy's best friend is in the desert. Madox is a rational, level-headed man who, like Almásy, chose to live in the desert to study the features of the land and report back to the Geographical Society. Unlike Almásy, Madox includes his own emotional reactions in his writing and reports, and is not shy to describe his amazement at a particular mountain or his wonder at the size of the moon. Lord Suffolk a member of the old English, who, once the war begins, takes it upon himself to defuse bombs and train other men to do so. Lord Suffolk is the one 'true English gentleman' whom Kip meets while he is abroad. Though Lord Suffolk is described as strange, Kip finds that he is actually a wonderful man and a kind mentor. Kip especially values the fact that Lord Suffolk can look beyond his race and welcome him into the 'English family.' Patrick, Hana's father, is the only parent who was present to raise her while she was growing up. Like Hana, Patrick leaves Canada to join the war effort. Hana is extremely close to her father, and the news of his death sparks her emotional breakd
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had a lots of ups and downs with The English Patient. One thing that I admired about the book was the fluid wording and beautiful descriptive metaphors. It made the book have a nice flow to it. However, the plot of the  book was confusing. Most of the book is flashbacks from all four of the different characters, which at times blended with the present setting. It was like being given a beautiful mosaic jigsaw puzzle, but the pieces didn't fit correctly. 
LoisLaneLG More than 1 year ago
Although the storyline and writing are very unusual, I frequently was confused. Often the author does not identify the speaker in a conversation and there is alot of moving from between time periods and characters without introduction. The characters themselves were very, very interesting. I learned from reading about the sapper who defused bombs during and after the war. Very informative. I'm 3/4 through. It is definately worth the read although the confusing nature of the writing initially tempted me to put it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I came from the unique perspective of having seen the movie first, however, I was quite surprised at some of the differences that existed. I enjoyed Mr. Ondaatje's lyrical style and I highly recommend reading 'The English Patient.' It's an experience you'll not soon forget.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't like a lot of books, especially those I have been forced to read. But this one I love. It's hard to get through the beginning, it's so 'quiet' but after that the characters come to life. And it's not so much a 'plot' that is carried out. This is a painting or long poem. And if you are willing to pay attention and actually concentrate you will love this book. AFTER reading I suggest watching the movie.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a masterpiece. I love the way Ondaatje wrote out the story, how he integrated each character at a different setting. It was written in a flashback manner like Catch-22. This book is a web of four people finding themselves and learning of each other and themselves. A true romantic and dramatic piece.
Guest More than 1 year ago
That is how I read it. I find my writing infected with a similar style; and I don't mind that much.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the English Patient for Michael Ondaatje's use of language. It was like reading beautiful prose and getting a history lesson out of it at the same time. Every sentence he wrote could be looked at in four different ways, with the possibilities of meaning neverending. The four characters are intricately entwined so that at times it is hard to decipher who is speaking or where the plot is going. However anyone who is capable of writing such a story is a true storyteller, and is definately worth reading to challenge the mind and the soul. I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys a serious read, an excellent tale, or a passionate love story. The English Patient encapsulates them all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read the book because a friend loved the movie. He is a person who would not normally reccommend this type of film. I read the book because I knew it would be better than a film. I read the first few pages in an airport bookstore and I was immediately enchanted. Ondaatje's style was so fluid, his prose was as beautiful and intense as poetry. I did not find it confusing at all, because I was enjoying the language so much that the plot took on a secondary role. I do not want to rave, but I love this book. It is one of the only books that I didn't want to end.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story was wonderful. I saw the movie first and fell in love with it. I decieded to read the book and fell in love with it also. The language is a little confusing, but once you get past it you'll begin to appreciate it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It seems like you either love or hate this book. I love it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Must read !
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
angelicaj More than 1 year ago
The English patient is a great mysterious love story. It did great with being very descriptive with the settings characters etc. The only bad feedback i have is that I was frequently confused and it didn't give a proper introduction on a new point of view or time period. Other than that when i got back on track with the story i ended up really enjoying it so if you are looking for a good passionate, mysterious love story I highly recommend The English Patient.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GenW More than 1 year ago
A sophisticated and poetic use of language to tell a story with some perverse twists which are immediately overcome by the power of the telling of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its like poetry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago