In a field hospital in an Italian villa, Canadian nurse Hana has remained behind during the German retreat to care for a patient burned beyond all recognition in the care of Bedouins, his identity unknown save for his English accent. The pair are joined by Caravaggio, a thief and old family friend, who soon becomes enthralled by the patient's secrets. Soon after sappers arrive clean to the town of mines, and Kip, an Indian expert in bomb disposal, moves into the villa as well. This unlikely family attempts to heal the wounds left by the war, moving on past tragedy to find love and peace.
As I said early into the book, The English Patient is very poetic; Ondaatje, another Canadian and a poet as well as a novelist, arranges phrases in a sentence like lines in a stanza, building a picture through small details rather than direct description, and the result is prose which is entrancing in places. The plot too builds with pieces falling into place; the situation is poetic too in its way, and like a poem the pieces never seem to jar as they come together, even though they are disparate.
Each character is a story of their own, all people broken by the war and revealing their histories in different ways. The other three characters orbit around the Patient, who has a weight of tragedy and mystery greater than the others; the only clues to his identity are his accent, his fragmentary memory and his dogeared copy of Herodotus' Histories, filled with scribbled diary entries chronicling his past. Hana, whose recent past is not mysterious, cares for him seemingly from a desire for continuity and perhaps a stubborn refusal to allow one more preventable death, while Caravaggio - having had his skills pressed into service in the war, and suffering horribly for it - comes looking for both Hana and her patient, having some suspicions about his true identity.
The most interesting character, though, is Kip. His story, which takes almost as long to recount as the patient's, is probably my favourite part of the book. The passages in which he is defusing a bomb, feeling its heart, matching wits against an opponent who is distant in both geography and time, are the best and most vital descriptions of the art of engineering ever written. His training too also evokes the same love and understanding of engineering; it can be an artform like any other, terrible or beautiful, simple or complex. Kip feels like the true "hero" of the novel, and the ending - which I won't give away - wouldn't be nearly as effective without him.
Like any good novel it's about journeys, but here only one character is actively in search of something, and even for Caravaggio the Patient's identity seems almost an afterthought. For a novel with such a small cast I was incredibly engaged, though I do wish I had understood Hana more. It's not inappropriate to the story, but despite being ostensibly central to the plot she really only serves as a catalyst for much of the story, listening to the Patient, padding silently through the deserted villa. She does go on a journey, but it's probably the least satisfying since it's the common "woman finds love" that seems somewhat dated now.
Though I've not seen the film - just as I've not seen Field of Dreams and hadn't seen The Godfather before reading it - I did know that Caravaggio was played by Willem Defoe, and I admit that seems like natural casting. I believe the film concentrates on the patient's storyline more than Kip's, and I'm not sure I'd like it as much for that reason - towards the end of the book, it was Kip's story that I loved the most.
So that's the penultimate book; I'll try and get to The Cleft tomorrow.
Page count: 324
Book's title mentioned on page: I'm not sure it is; in the novel they generally refer to him as "the patient", since he's the only one left in the villa
Best name encountered: Carravaggio is pretty great, but I've a soft spot for Madox, one of the men in the patient's memories
New words: loggia
Inner Five-year-old score: 2 (it's a complex adult novel)
Fun Wikipedia fact: One of Ondaatje's thirteen books of poetry is titled There's a Trick With a Knife I'm Learning to Do.