I decided to read The English Patient after reading Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion because they share the same characters. Ondaatje’s style is so poetic and sensual that it was powerful to have the backstory for the characters. Although the novels are not dependent on each other, there is a benefit to having a deeper or richer connection to the characters.
Ondaatje asks a lot of his readers. His stories are not plot driven and do not adhere to any timeline but instead follow more in the way of memories that you drop in and out of at his whim. Although this can make the novel difficult to follow at moments, it generally gives an organic and real feel to the novels. When you recall memories they are not often chronological or uninterrupted and his characters meet these same dilemmas. It allows the characters to be more flawed, more honest, and more human.
I love the way Ondaatje gently touches on issues of a war-torn world, while still focusing solely on the emotions of the four main characters. The war is there in every detail, damaged buildings, danger in just walking and living in mined lands, corpses, morphine addictions, loss, and suffering. These things surround the characters and their every move and yet do not overrun the novel – it still remains human, poetic, and sensual.
The most powerful moments for me were when Ondaatje confronts issues of race. The sapper opens this discussion and his experiences are there to be painfully digested. The race issues climax with the bombing of Hiroshima. This part of history is always gut-wrenching painful and Ondaatje’s handling of it is yet another viewpoint and another way for your heart to break while your anger burns at the injustice.
The English Patient is not a simple chronological read but instead a book that must be read with the heart or the soul. Don’t expect to be carried along by a streamlined plot but instead by the beauty of the words and the humanity of the characters.
I recommend earl grey tea with The English Patient. Earl grey is strong while remaining tender, dark yet brightened by that floral citrus, and that mending of dark and light fits well with this novel by Michael Ondaatje.