Chronicles of a writer abroad

Book recommendation: The English Patient


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!


11 thoughts on “Book recommendation: The English Patient

  1. Thanks for the recommendation – I should probably read this. My experience with the movie was tainted by our attempt at seeing it in the theater. We got there late and slipped in, assuming that we had just missed the trailers. The story was told all out of order, so we thought we were just getting adjusted to the rhythm of it – and the credits started to roll after just an hour!

    It was showing on multiple screens and we had walked into the wrong one. Once I saw it on DVD, I was a bit disappointed in the story overall – but I may have still be feeling stupid about the first time we saw it!

    • I think this would be a case in which the book is better than the movie (in fact, I believe that this rule applies most of the time). But I’m curious to see the movie now…

  2. I love book recommendations! I just finished “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave. I really enjoyed the writing style and the plot…but just a warning that there is also a fairly graphic scene that sticks with you. It was one of the better books I have read in a while. Another book that I just finished (which is actually young adult fiction) is called The Hunger Games. It is a actually a trilogy. The plot reminded me a lot of something that Margaret Atwood would write about. I loved it. The writing style is very simplistic and so is some of the character development but I found the themes and ideas very intriguing. Apparently there is a movie coming out…so it is very popular right now. Let me know what you think if you pick any of them up!

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Kim! I have heard buzz surrounding The Hunger Games, and I will check the other one out, too. Speaking of Margaret Atwood, I’m actually reading The Handmaid’s Tale right now — another classic that I’m long overdue to read!

  3. If you liked The English Patient, I have six words for you: In the Skin of a Lion.
    It’s a mystery and love story set in Toronto, mainly in the 20s. It is partly a story of the unpraised immigrants who built the city and made huge personal sacrifices to do so.

    In the Skin of a Lion is in some senses a prequel to The English Patient. Ondaatje is a master of playing around with time! One of the epigraphs is by John Berger: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.”

  4. hi Kristen,
    I haven’t commented on any of your posts for awhile, but just wanted to let you know I
    “drop everything” when I get an email with your newest, and enjoy them so much. Thanks!!

  5. I too was one of those people who were skeptical of the movie version of the English Patient (as when so many people love something in particular and so then I tend to go the other way … not sure why). Anyways, I really liked the movie (way more than I expected) but then I never read the book so perhaps I would have been more disappointed in the movie had I ever got around to reading the book first. Having said all this, I too have been “reaching back” in what I’m consuming lately – right now I’m reading A Prayer for Owen Meaney. I’ve always enjoyed John Irving, although sadly his style is now starting to get a little repititious – you’re Dad says to stick with it though, it’s one the best fiction books he’s ever read.
    P.S. – Leah, you have peaked my interest for In the Skin of a Lion – thanks!
    P.S. – I love this idea of sharing thoughts on books -I’m always looking ahead to what my next 3 or 4 books will be!

    • John Irving is one of my favourite authors. I got to see him read/answer questions on Granville Island in Vancouver a couple of years ago — that was so exciting for me. I also re-read The Hotel New Hampshire earlier this year. I agree with my Dad that it’s worth pushing through any boring parts of Owen Meany; it’s really a very touching story. It also was the basis for the movie “Simon Birch,” but I don’t think the movie was well-received.

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