In Need of Literary Surgery – A Review on The English Patient

I really wanted to enjoy, even love, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992). I’d seen the film version, directed by Anthony Minghella and released in 1996, some years previously and found it visually stunning. Hoping to explore the plot and the characters in more depth, I grabbed the book with high expectations.

Man meets married woman, they fall in love, jealous husband tries to kill both and ultimately succeeds. Girl meets mysterious boy, they fall in love, boy gets upset over a nuclear bomb and leaves. Throw in some morphine, a thief, dismantling bombs, Italian landscape and a lot of desert sand and you get The English Patient.

The story uses different time levels and flashbacks for added richness that I generally found to be working well, even though the pacing could at times have been slightly faster. Despite the plot being so exciting and dramatic, Ondaatje seems to have wanted to focus on building a lingering atmosphere in which the emphasis is on characters and language rather than the action.

At best, that descriptive, impressionistic language is a delight to read because it manages to evoke fresh ideas and imagery. At worst, it succeeds in nothing but being repetitive, boring and pretentious. Unfortunately The English Patient is more of the latter: uninspired and tedious, the language resembles that of a diligent creative writing student aiming high but failing to produce anything of much interest outside the classroom.

The best passages in an altogether disappointing book I found to be halfway through the story where the desert explorations were described. It really is quite telling that these passages consist of facts rather than Ondaatje’s fiction. Some books actually work much better filmed, and The English Patient is one of them.

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