My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book was ridiculous and beautiful at the same time. It harnessed the most complicated feelings in me that I may ever have experienced from a novel.
First I should start with reasons why I enjoyed this novel:
1. The plot and characters. Michael Ondaatje spins a beautiful story about finding and losing love. The mere idea of falling so deeply in love with someone, but not being able to be with them is heart breaking. Ondaatje plays on the heart strings with a bittersweet tune of love and loss. The characters' experiences (Hana losing her father, Caravaggio losing his thumbs, Kip losing his culture and family, and the English patient losing his lover) are Ondaatje’s strongest points in this novel. Each has suffered through cruelties the war has brought them.
2. The prose was…interesting. The style reminded me of The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. Even though it is technically prose, it felt as though Ondaatje was attempting to be poetic, which is unsurprising considering that he has published poetry. The skipping back and forth between narratives without warning kept me on my toes while reading it. Usually I find myself quickly skimming through novels that don’t require much energy to read and understand. With The English Patient I was forced to read slowly and thoroughly in order to avoid missing any important parts.
Secondly, the reasons why I hated this novel:
1. The characters. Even though Ondaatje did spin some interesting characters, I felt that he didn’t see them through to their end. Nothing, nothing happens to them! I was literally waiting for the shoe to drop throughout the entire novel. Did the English Patient die? How did Kip return to his previous life? When he thought of Hana at the end, was she there with him? The last sentence of the novel ALONE was so confusing. Was he taking something from her hand? Or was this just some implied eternal connection between them?
The strength of their relationships with each other seemed tenuous at best. Hana has sex with Kip and yet they barely talk and definitely do not disclose their innermost and truest feelings. Somehow they manage to communicate deeply by feeling the thrum of their pulses through their skin. WHAT??? Each come from very different places in the world but are bonded together…how?...Through their war experiences and trauma, basically, which is never deeply explored.
Between Caravaggio and Hana’s history, their relationship to her father, we’re somehow supposed to interpret their looks and talks as…what? What was their relationship anyway? Caravaggio is an old friend of Hana’s deceased father and so what are their relationship dynamics? Where does Caravaggio even end up at the end of the novel?
It felt as though Ondaatje decided to use his ethereal words and prose as a way to avoid firmly taking a stance with any of his characters. None seemed to grow and expand, for better or worse. They simply fade away.
2. The prose. Even though I somewhat enjoyed certain terms and ideas Ondaatje put forth, most of the time it simply felt as though he was trying too hard, forcing a sweetness and melancholy which was confusing at times. As I already stated, the last sentence of the novel is left entirely up to one’s personal translation which has always been a writing tactic which frustrates me.
3. The lack of any point to the novel. Okay, so some novels are written for cheap entertainment (Jodie Picoult, Danielle Steele, etc), but The English Patient never struck me as a story that didn’t have a important message to communicate to the reader. Yet, at the end of it all, I was so confused about what exactly was imparted to us throughout the read. That love is important? Sure. That life can be cruel? I guess so. But what exactly was the point of the novel?? What was the driving force behind it? Perhaps the impalpable sensibilities of the novel are what make so many people hate it so strongly.
Moving past what I loved and hated…
Movie vs. Novel
I watched the movie before I read the novel. The first time I watched it, I was completely confused. The second time it made more sense. The third time my heart was torn. However, I believe that the genius Anthony Minghella, who adapted the novel to screen play, should have written the novel with Michael Ondaatje. Things were far more compact and made much more sense (especially with sequence) in the movie.
In the novel Almasy leaves Katharine’s body in the cave for three years before returning to it to…move her body somewhere? For what reason? To keep for however long? To embalm? In the movie he returns to the novel as soon as possible after he leaves, believing she may still be alive. The letter scene (won’t spoil it) is extremely moving.
I literally SOB every single time I watch the movie. After reading the book, I appreciated the concepts that Ondaatje birthed, but even much more appreciated the adaptation.
The reason I gave The English Patient three stars was because without this novel there could never have existed such a haunting and beautiful movie.
And to be fair…some of the writing was truly breath taking and stunning. After watching the movie and reading the novel, I believe the viewer and reader will be left with feelings of wistfulness and longing. For what? For something untouchable and ineffable.
"We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. 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. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience."
"The heart is an organ of fire."
So thank you, Ondaatje, for those beautiful phrases.
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