I finished this book in hospital, in the final hours before my new daughter was born. I was hoping for another week’s incubation, but the Doctors insisted. That morning, I waited some test results in a restaurant across the road from the hospital, savouring adultness and time alone before the encroaching storm. For sure enough, on return to the hospital, I was allocated a bed: the show was on the road. I turned once more to the final section of The English Patient – and waited.
Could there have been a more lyrical, soothing companion for this time? (Though I should reference my main companion, my husband, who arrived shortly afterwards and later walked me carefully, in very early labour, to a bookshop along the road from the hospital knowing that they are my happy place. It took several days for the bruising on his hands from my clutches during the subsequent labour to go down. He’s a bit of a hero.)
Many of you may know the brilliant film made of this novel, but the novel is far more centred on the Italian villa that the patient is convalescing in, and the various characters within it, compared to the pre-war desert love story that is the main focus of the film. Book and film swap primary and secondary storylines with the result that the book has a more unusual and nuanced focus. Post-war, why are these characters clustered in this limbo area of a foreign land, short on food and medicine plus crammed to the rafters with mines? Ondaatje shows the profound damage the war has wrought on each one – the nurse, a thief childhood family friend, the Sikh sapper, as well as most obviously the patient himself. The delicate balance of their relationships in this time of unnatural tension, kept in the air by the mines being constantly defused around them, gives an ongoing drive. You have to stop and recount what happens in the novel to realised that actually it’s fairly incident-free, at least in the present – but such is the depth of personal history and psychology and the complexity of the present that you don’t even notice.
And the writing – the writing! So delicate, so finely handled, so perfectly balanced. It’s a masterclass in astonishing style which is simultaneously never overblown, never try-hard. At times this book is like reading poetry – but poetry with characters, with context, with history. There is no authorial ego – a narrator voice only appears in the dying pages to say how even it doesn’t truly grasp the main character. For the people are so real and so complicated that it’s not a question of the author uncovering who they are and what makes them tick – they are so real that he merely observes and that’s as far as he can go.
This is much too intelligent a book to qualify as a light read, but it’s far from heavy going. I’d recommend it left, right and centre. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.