The English Patient is Ondaatje’s most conventional novel, but it retains many characteristics of his earlier works in its shifting viewpoints, its use of historical documents, and its insistence on the ambiguity of truth. It won the Man Booker Prize in 1992.
As the novel begins, Hana, a young Canadian nurse, has been left in charge of a badly burned patient who seems to have been shot down while flying over the desert. They are the only inhabitants of the Italian villa that had been used as a hospital until the close of World War II, when staff and patients moved elsewhere. Hana often puzzles over the notebook the patient has made from an old copy of Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709). Most of his entries concern the Arabian desert.
Hana is joined in the villa by Caravaggio, a thief whose thumbs have been cut off. He accuses her of being in love with the English patient, but she denies it, saying that she thinks he is a “despairing saint” whom she wants to protect. Soon the three are joined by Kip, a young Indian explosives expert. Kip is a detached and solitary person who sleeps in his tent at the edge of the villa’s grounds. After Hana helps him defuse a bomb, they are drawn into a love affair, although Caravaggio is also vying for Hana’s attention.
The novel’s fourth section concerns the events that happened to an expedition...
(The entire section is 512 words.)