Here’s the essence of The English Patient for me — we have four characters: the English patient, a mysterious fellow who was burned in a plane crash, and might be a spy for the Germans (the time is after the war with Germany is over, but before the war with Japan is over); his nurse, Hana; a Sikh bomb removal specialist name Kip; and Caravaggio, a thief who is some sort of father figure to Hana. During the two month timeline of the novel, they all cluster together in a ruined villa in northern Italy, as Hana cares for her patient, the bomb specialist wanders around defusing things, and Caravaggio does, well, whatever he does… and nobody ever goes shopping. Nobody ever gets a paycheck. Nobody ever has to deal with a boss. They live in a world where nothing changes, the little revelations that are supposed to mean so much get revealed and then reversed, and there is no larger conflict, no larger problem, no larger goal. Maybe I’m missing something. Everyone has different tastes, after all, and I miss many things in this life, I admit. And maybe that stasis is exactly the point of this book. How the world passes us by, while we are doing the little things.
But one of the great joys of 19th century fiction is the driving, relentless issue of obtaining and retaining money. Russian novels depend on it. Dickens thrives on it. The women in Jane Austen novels struggle mightily with finding an honorable man to marry so they won’t all starve to death. For what would anyone hand away such a perfect source of conflict? To focus on character? Conflict reveals character. And the author here seems none too slick at revealing character. No one much changes, despite the revelations. Again, maybe that’s some sort of artistic statement, and the lassitude is to calm and encircle the reader in beauty.
But I am more inclined to think the author knows little of putting characters under pressure, showing how that alters them, how they respond to it, how the new circumstances change them further… one of the great joys of fiction. There is much to be said for the structure where a sympathetic character struggles against overwhelming odds to attain a worthwhile goal. But you’re not going to find much of that here.
The bubble of unreality extends beyond just their living conditions. Hana has much sex, but never worries about pregnancy. People have extensive flashbacks to different days and different situations that seem remote from their current world. Kip honors the English, then his view changes when… well, at least it changes. The patient never gets any better, and unless I missed something just sort of vanishes at the end of the book, as being irrelevant, I guess. As I said, everyone is in a sort of little dream world. Yes, there is the danger of bombs, and some skittishness now and again, but nothing of ongoing concern. And no deep epiphanies about life, the universe and everything, at least enough to move me.
Let me admit, however, that there is much beautiful description, and some extremely lyrical language. And it may be interesting to consider a world so removed from everyday concerns: how that might work. So if that’s enough to captivate you, this might be your book.
Happy Reading, Happy Writing,
P M F Johnson
Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.
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