Although Michael Ondaatje had published several collections of poetry and novels prior to The English Patient, it is this novel that propelled him into worldwide fame as a writer. The English Patient was a bestseller in 1992, the year that it was published and received highly favorable reviews in the major North American newspapers. He was awarded the Booker Prize in 1992, sharing this prize for Best Novel with Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. Ondaatje was the first Canadian to be awarded this prize.
Ondaatje was previously known as a poet, and the critics picked up on the influence of poetry on the narrative style of The English Patient. A review in MacLean found the poetic influence a strength of the novel. John Bemrose wrote:
Michael Ondaatje … who began his writing career as a poet, has managed to recast the traditional novel in his own peculiar way, so that the measured dance of his poetic rhythms and images leads the reader ever deeper into a story. His new novel, The English Patient, is one of the finest Canadian novels ever written … Ondaatje has somehow found a way to give an abstract narrative the illusion of physical presence. That accomplishment also depends on his masterly command of rhythm.
While the novel received almost entirely highly favorable review by the general readership, it has also held its own as a subject for critical literary interpretation during the 13 years it has been in publication, providing in its unconventional construction a rich critical source for narrative studies, and in its subject matter, a source for post-colonial literary studies, among other subjects.