Friday Faves: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Each week I invite someone bookish to tell us about one of their all-time favourite works of fiction, and why it’s so special to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from author Dawn Barker:

When Annabel asked me to write about one of my favourite books, I scanned the spines of the books on my shelves, then scrolled through the titles on my e-reader (which was not quite as satisfying). Like most authors, I have many favourite books – the books that I recommend to people, those that I don’t want to lend to others in case they are never returned. My eye settled on The English Patient, and when I started to flick through it and read the beautiful, sparse, atmospheric writing, all I wanted to do was to sit down and read it again. This was the one.

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The English Patient is one of the few books that I came to only after seeing the movie. I remember watching the film when it first came out on video (yes, it probably was video, not DVD). I was still at University; I watched it with my friend, accompanied by takeaway food and a bottle of wine. We both hated it: we couldn’t understand it; it was too ‘slow’, the shifts in time and place were confusing. But then, a few years later, I watched it again, and this time I loved it. I bought the book, and loved it even more.

The title of this book is about as perfect as one can be, and it sets up the mystery before we even open it up. Who is The English Patient? Whose patient is he? What is his name? What does it matter if he’s English? The intrigue set up by the opening pages of this book is as good as any I’ve read: we meet a nurse, Hana, as she bathes the charred body of a severely burned man.

 She leans forward. How were you burned?

I fell burning into the desert.

They found my body and made me a boat of sticks and dragged me across the desert. We were in the Sand Sea, now and then crossing dry riverbeds…I flew down and the sand itself caught fire. They saw me stand up naked out of it. The leather helmet on my head in flames…

Who are you?

I don’t know. You keep asking me.

You said you were English.

And so we enter an abandoned villa in rural Italy, where Hana cares for her only patient. We don’t know why he’s there, or if we can trust him, but gradually, through notes on his copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, we discover the beautiful and tragic love story that haunts him as the story takes us to explore Cairo and the North African desert. His is not the only love story though: Hana and Kip, an Indian sapper in the British army, also find a beautiful connection.

This novel for me has it all: gorgeous prose, a mysterious and dramatic storyline and an emotional pull that still makes me cry when I re-read it. The characters become so real to me as I read that I can’t help but hope that their stories will end differently. The settings are exotic and beautifully described, and it has a background of war, racial tensions, trauma, espionage, and trust. And, ultimately, love.

And now, The English Patient is back on my bedside table, waiting to be opened again.

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Dr Dawn Barker is a Child Psychiatrist. In 2010, her novel Fractured was selected for the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre’s manuscript development programme and was published in March by Hachette Australia. Dawn lives in Perth with her husband and three young children. Check her website for more information.

Want more?

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