Yes, that’s right: I’m a few years behind on this one. 19 years, to be exact. Can I just say that it’s pretty incredible how quickly time has flown since 1992, when The English Patient was first published? I was ten years old then, so I think I should be let off the hook for not reading this immediately upon its release. But maybe I should be faulted for not reading it when I was twenty, and for waiting almost another decade to finally dive into this story.
But maybe you can understand, because maybe you’re like me. Maybe you also have that stubborn streak inside you that makes you recoil from things that people say you “simply must” do. The English patient was a “simply must read,”and the movie it spawned was a “simply must watch” (I haven’t seen the movie, but I did enjoy the classic Seinfeld episode wherein Elaine lost a boyfriend, and put her job in jeopardy, for voicing her dislike of this film that everyone else fervently loved). I have wasted time on “simply must” gone awry (no offence, Dan Brown, but…) and I have grown distrustful of it.
Okay, so let me give you my opinion. It’s not that you must read — but that you really might enjoy reading The English Patient, if, like me, you’ve been putting it off for too long. You might be thinking, “can it possibly be that good?” as I did, for many years. This story — basically about the unpredictability and sadness of love, bombs, and war — is that good. I’d read Ondaatje before (Divisadero), but I think this is Ondaatje at his peak. I finished this book a couple weeks ago, actually, and wasn’t going to post about it until I realized that some of his gorgeous lines were still jumping around in my head. Ondaatje is a poet who writes novels, I think. I love his vivid imagery:
Her father had taught her about hands. About a dog’s paws. Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of the paw. This, he would say, as if coming away from a brandy snifter, is the greatest smell in the world! A bouquet! Great rumours of travel! She would pretend disgust, but the dog’s paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt. It’s a cathedral! her father had said, so-and-so’s garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen — a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal had taken during the day (p. 8).
Man, doesn’t that make you want to smell a dog? I wish my cats smelled like that. Though they already smell good, in their own way.
This can be a disturbing book, too — the incident that leads to the English patient becoming an invalid is one of the most affecting (and not in a happy way) scenes that I have read in a novel in recent memory. But this, too, shows the gift of the author.
So, if you haven’t read it…consider it. Don’t let another decade go by.
Have you read anything good lately? Please share your recommendations!