Hana is a twenty-year-old nurse from Canada whose father died in a burning accident. She is an intelligent young girl who was essentially forced to grow up and learn how to navigate adulthood much too soon. She becomes a very skilled nurse and knows that she mustn't form any deep emotional attachments with her patients, because she knows that one cannot afford the luxury of sentimentality amidst war and surrounded by death, pain, and suffering.
She's incapable of coping with her father's death and is actually fascinated with the concept of loss and grief and the complexity of the human psyche. Her father's death traumatized her, as she was very close to him, and she distances herself from everyone; she doesn't write home and doesn't tell anyone about how her father died. When she meets the English patient, who was also in a burning accident, and starts to take care of him, Hana basically projects her father's persona onto the patient and slowly begins to come to terms with her father's death.
We first learn about the death of Patrick, Hana's father, in chapter 2; Ondaatje tells the readers that a war official came to the hospital in the old monastery ground where Hana worked and gave her a letter which told her about her father's death.
Nurses too became shell-shocked from the dying around them .... They broke the way a man dismantling a mine broke the second his geography exploded. The way Hana broke in Santa Chiara Hospital when an official walked down the space between a hundred beds and gave her a letter that told her of the death of her father.
Hana can't deal with the sadness and pain that she feels whenever she thinks or talks about her father, and she tells the English patient that her father is still in France, fighting in the war.
In chapter 4, however, Caravaggio (a friend of Hana's father) tells the English patient that Hana's father is actually dead.
"I can talk with you, Caravaggio, because I feel we are both mortal. The girl, the boy, they are not mortal yet. In spite of what they have been through. Hana was greatly distressed when I first met her."
"Her father was killed in France."
"I see. She would not talk about it. She was distant from everybody."
In chapter 3, Hanna and Caravaggio talk, and she tells him how she lost a baby, how the father of the baby is dead, and how her father is also dead. Caravaggio tells her that he also got a letter that informed him about Patrick's death and that Patrick is not the reason he's at the villa.
"You knew, huh?"
"I got a letter from home."
"Is that why you came here, because you knew?"
"Good. I don’t think that he believed in wakes and such things. Patrick used to say he wanted a duet by two women on musical instruments when he died. Squeeze-box and violin. That's all. He was so damn sentimental."
In chapter 10, Hana musters the courage to finally tell Clara, Hana's stepmother, about Patrick's death and to come clean about everything. The readers realize that Hana is now mentally and emotionally more mature and knows what exactly is happening in her life. Perhaps she is finally ready to go home to Clara and give life and happiness a chance.
Patrick died in a dove-cot in France. In France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they built them huge, larger than most houses. Like this .... A sacred place. Like a church in many ways. A comforting place. Patrick died in a comforting place .... I am sick of Europe, Clara. I want to come home.