The English Patient

The English Patient

by Michael Ondaatje


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The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

With unsettling beauty and intelligence, this Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II.

The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679745204
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/20/1993
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 42,655
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.61(d)
Lexile: 910L (what's this?)

About the Author

Michael Ondaatje is the author of several award-winning novels, as well as a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. Among other accolades, his novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize, and Anil's Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto, Canada.

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.

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.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.  We hope that they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to consider this mesmerizing work of fiction, a novel that is simultaneously mysterious, poetic, and romantic.

1. The English patient "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" [p. 4]. Why does the patient consider himself to have "died"? Does he undergo any kind of rebirth during the course of the story?

2. What can you deduce from the novel about Hana's relationship with her father? Has her father's death, and the manner of it, caused her to retreat from the war and devote herself to the English patient? What influence do her feelings for her father have upon her relationship with Caravaggio?

3. Why did Hana decide to have an abortion during the war? How has that decision affected her, and how much influence has it had on her life at the villa?

4. How does the landscape of the novel—the Villa San Girolamo, the country around it, and the boundary between the two—reflect the inner lives of its inhabitants? Why do you think that Ondaatje has chosen Tuscany as the setting for his story? What significance do other landscapes, like the desert and the English countryside, hold for the story and its characters?

5. The English patient says, "I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books" [p. 261]. How does Ondaatje use maps and cartography as a metaphor for people and history? What does geography mean to the English patient and to Ondaatje's other characters?

6. Why has Ondaatje made Caravaggio a thief by profession? What is it in his character that makes such an occupation appropriate? "All his life he has avoided permanent intimacy" [p. 116]. Does Caravaggio change during the course of the novel? Does he ever come to accept intimacy, and if so, what type of intimacy and intimacy with whom?

7. The imagery at the beginning of the novel likens the patient to Christ. Later, Caravaggio says to Hana, "You don't love him, you adore him," to which she answers, "He is a saint" [p. 45]. Who else is likened to a saint, and why? Where else in the novel can you find religious imagery, and what is its purpose? The night before the Hiroshima explosion Kip sleeps in a church. What is the subject of the painting he sees there, and what is its thematic relation to the imminent atomic explosion?

8. "I came to hate nations," says the English patient. "We are deformed by nation-states" [p. 138]. How does the desert negate the idea of nations? What sort of supra-national unity is experienced by the Europeans drawn to the desert, and how does each of them respond to the beginning of war? What alternate view of geography and history does the desert offer?

9. After Hiroshima, Caravaggio finds himself agreeing with Kip that "they would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation" [p. 286]. How does the subject of race and racism enter into this novel? What conclusions, if any, are drawn at the end?

10. Why do you think that Hana removes all the mirrors in the house and puts them in an empty room? Is her own physical presence disturbing to her, or simply irrelevant?

11. What does this novel tell us about the British Empire at the moment it was beginning to dissolve? What are its moral strengths and its fatal weaknesses, as presented by the novel and its characters? What aspect of the Empire do Kip and Lord Suffolk represent, and what does Lord Suffolk's death symbolize? Was Kip completely misguided in attaching himself to the British? Is his revulsion from them at the end a reasonable response, or is it too violent?

12. "I think when I see him at the foot of my bed that Kip is my David" [p. 116], says the English patient. How can you describe the connection the patient feels between himself and Kip? Is it emotional, political, or dependent upon some other tie? In what way do the two men reflect one another?

13. "Madox was a man who died because of nations" [p. 242], says the English patient. What is it about Madox that makes him experience disillusionment as hopelessness, and commit suicide, while Kip is able to create new life out of similar disillusionment?

14. Why does Katherine treat her lover with physical violence? What does it say about the relationship between the two, and about Almasy's own character? What does the manner of Katherine's death tell us? Does it seem to you that Almasy links sex with death and pain? Can you find other places in the novel where sex and death are explicitly connected?

15. What needs and motivations originally drew Hana and Kip together? Might their relationship have been a lasting one, had it not been for the Hiroshima bombing? Why do they not keep in touch in later life, though they continue to think so often of one another?

16. Why do you think that Hana, unlike Kip, has finally "not found her own company, the ones she wanted" [p. 301]? Can Hana be seen as a "victim" of the war, or have her experiences in Italy simply made her more clearsighted and realistic? How do her two renditions of "La Marseillaise" indicate the change that the war has wrought in her?

17. Can the novel can be seen as a mystery, with the identity of the English patient at its heart? Does Caravaggio's identification of the patient solve the mystery, or does there remain a question at the end? How do other characters in The English Patient, such as Hana, Kip, and Katherine, discover or come to terms with their own identities?

18. How would you describe Ondaatje's style: does the story resemble a film perhaps, or a dream? Why has he chosen this mode in which to write this particular tale? What is his purpose in making the action move backward and forward in time?

19. The English Patient refers explicitly to Rudyard Kipling's Kim. If you know this novel, how does its presence within the text contribute to Ondaatje's theme? In what way, if any, do the characters in The English Patient correspond to those in Kim? Is it significant that Kip was born in Lahore?

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The English Patient 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 65 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.
brendaough on LibraryThing 6 days ago
This is one of the best novels I have ever read in my life; absolutely beautiful, very poetic and moving.
heidilove on LibraryThing 12 days ago
This is a brilliant and breathtaking novel. The way Ondaatje commands the language, you are transported into the scenery, itself lush and telling, and the story is remarkable. Sure to be a classic of the century.
karatepen More than 1 year ago
I didn't finished this book.i found it boring and self indulgent...sorr.y...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not a literary scholar, that being said I think I missed a lot in this novel. Nevertheless, i thoroughly enjoyed this intricate, if confusing, story with just enough of mental instability that i could connect with. The language is simply beautiful and poetic, reminding me a bit of F Scott Fitzgerald. Overall, an eccentric but satisfying read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Must read !
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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