The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is one of those books that’s been on my shelf for years. In my efforts to read what I own, and because my library had it on audio, I finally picked it up.
About the Book:
Set near the end of World War II, The English Patient tells the story of four people who are brought together in an Italian villa. There’s the nameless English patient, bedridden and burned beyond recognition. There’s Hana, the young Canadian nurse who stayed behind to care for him. There’s Caravaggio, a maimed thief who, long ago, was a friend of Hana’s father. And there’s Kip, a polite and detached Sikh who defuses bombs for the British army.
The English Patient is the story of how their lives intersect. It is riddled with stories from the past, memories, and glimpses of each character’s inner life.
I listened to The English Patient, and I believe that was the wrong approach to take. I’ve seen others mention having a similar experience, so I don’t think it’s just me. Honestly, this review is a little tough to write (and will be rather brief) because I hardly remember the details of the book!
I suspect The English Patient really might be quite lovely, but you cannot drift off and still follow along. If you lose the thread of the story even briefly, you have no idea where you are. Not the kind of book that works well on audio, at least for me. A character would pop up in another character’s memory and I’d have no idea who it was or how he or she tied in with the story. Or I’d be lost as to what was happening in the book’s present versus in its past. On top of that, there’s a bit of a mystery about who the English patient actually is, so I felt like I never quite knew what was true in stories that related to him somehow (which, admittedly, might have been the point, but it compounded my feeling lost in the book in general). It also didn’t help that there’s only one narrator: Christopher Cazenove. He did a fine job, but having a single voice covering four characters and the stories they tell made it hard to distinguish who was talking.
My favorite character was Kip. I really liked his story and found his character to be particularly well drawn and intriguing. I didn’t know anything about the squads trained to defuse bombs for the British, so I learned a bit as well. But as you can probably tell, I’m short on remembered details even for my favorite character! I definitely blame my choice of audio over print for that problem.
At the same time, there are other books I’ve listened to and really enjoyed that I’d never have gotten through in print. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts comes to mind. Funny how it can work both ways.
The Verdict: Mediocre
In theory, I should have liked The English Patient. It features four very interesting characters. There’s a bit of history. There are details of what life was like for the foursome trying to get by alone in the villa. It’s well written, compelling. I think if I’d read it in print, I’d probably have rated it a level higher. It just didn’t work on audio for me.
If you’re going to give this one a shot, I would opt for the written form unless you have supernatural powers of attention!
Is there a book you’ve listened to that you think would’ve worked much better in print…or vice versa?