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The English Patient


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About the Author

MICHAEL ONDAATJE is the author of six previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize and subsequently the Golden Man Booker Prize, given in honor of the Prize's 50th anniversary; Anil's Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix M dicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.


In an Italian villa at the end of World War II, a young nurse cares for a soldier so horribly burned that he cannot be identified. Both patients and medical staff have decamped from this makeshift hospital, but Hana perseveres, worn out by the war and yet strangely linked to the dying man. Then a friend of her father arrives--a thief-turned-spy who recalls Hana as a young girl in Canada--and raises questions about ``the English patient,'' claiming that he is instead a Hungarian who spied for the Third Reich. Finally, they are joined by a young Sikh named Kip, a soldier with a nearby English battalion who defuses the bombs left behind by the Germans. The discovery of the patient's identity, Kip's successful defusion of several bombs, and the complex emotional interaction of all four characters creates a tension that is nicely heightened by Ondaatje's stately, luminous prose. The prose is so stately, in fact, that Kip's final outrage at the moral perfidy of the Western world he has served so loyally takes a moment to hit. When it does, the novel moves beyond the poetic to achieve moral stature. Highly recommended for literary collections.-- Barbara Hoffert, ``Library Journal''

A poet's sensitive, deep-seeing eye, a fluid, sensuous prose and imaginative juxtapositions of characters and events distinguish Canadian author Ondaatje's impressive novels ( Coming Through Slaughter ; In the Skin of a Lion ; etc.). Here again he brings together disparate characters whose lives intersect at a crucial moment in history, and introduces real-life figures who add dimension and credibility to the story. The four people who take shelter in an abandoned villa in Italy during the final days of WW II are in retreat from a world gone mad; each of them is bent on protecting painful memories and pondering irreplaceable losses. The mysterious ``English patient'' has been horribly burned while parachuting into the Libyan desert; his face unrecognizable and his identity unknown, he gradually reveals his tragic story through the prompting of David Caravaggio, a professional thief and former spy whose hands and spirit have been maimed by Nazi torturers. Caravaggio has come to the villa in search of Hana, a woman who is nursing the burned man, whom Caravaggio has known since her childhood in Toronto. Close to emotional breakdown herself, dry-souled Hana is nourished by her love for Kip, a Singh demolitions expert whose perilous craft reflects the fragility of all their lives. Each is ``playing a game of secrets,'' which Ondaatje reveals in a suspenseful narrative whose gripping scenes (a desert sandstorm; the defusing of live bombs) call to mind the sudden brilliance of subjects illuminated by Caravaggio's artist namesake, to whose work Ondaatje elliptically refers. If the events of the novel's closing pages seem forced, they underscore Ondaatje's message about the lingering effects of war's brutality. (Oct.)

"A rare and spellbinding web of dreams." --Time "Sensuous, mysterious, rhapsodic, it transports the reader to another world . . . . Ondaatje's most probing examination yet of the nature of identity." --San Francisco Chronicle "Mr. Ondaatje [is] one of North America's finest novelists . . . . The spell of his haunted villa remains with us, inviting us to reread passages for the pure pleasure of being there." --Wall Street Journal

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