Details: (c) 1992 Michael Ondaatje; Pub Vintage 1993; ISBN 0-679-74520-3
Verdict: The English patient is lyrical and moving.
Reasons for reading it: When the film came out, the things people were saying about why the book is better led me to think I might enjoy the book.
How it came into my hands: Bargain table at The Strand in New York
The English Patient reminds me strongly of Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces, in that it's describing horrors using lyrical language and through the lens of character interactions. The writing is certainly beautiful, and the characterization is extremely good, but I must admit I found the book slightly slow-moving. I think its major flaw is that it gets tangled up in the mystery of who exactly the eponymous English patient was, a mystery which just makes the story more confusing rather than more interesting IMO. Also, when the patient's past is revealed by means of a convenient truth serum, I didn't really understand what had happened, particularly with Katharine Clifton and the cave and the events that led to his injuries.
OTOH, I really, really liked Kip's character and story arc, and the way the book deals with Hiroshima is masterful. I appreciated the way that the relationships among the residents of the villa are plausibly complex; it's not just that there is a heroine and a love interest, but it doesn't fall into the obvious cliches of romantic tension between several people either. The way the narration moves between viewpoints, never completely inside a particular character's head but illuminating their different perspectives and different blind spots, really enhances the story. Hana isn't exactly an unreliable narrator, because she doesn't directly narrate, but there is a really strong sense of both her realness and her brokenness. It was particularly striking that Kip, and to some extent Caravaggio, are presented as sexual objects, in a way that is very rare for male characters (other than in explicitly gay literature).
The English Patient has a lot of strengths which are really impressive. It falls short of being a perfect book for me because it shades into being too clever for its own good. But I found it extremely emotionally powerful, and I think it did a better job of making me think about the impact of WW2 than a lot of other books which are much more explicitly polemical.