Hana, a young nurse of Canadian origin, decides to settle down in an Italian ruined villa, owing to the critical condition of a burnt patient. This place is teeming with hidden undetonated bombs. She comes to know that the patient was burned in an air crash while travelling in Africa. The patient is of English origin and carries a copy of Herodotus. He however, acts as though he does not remember anything about his identity, post the accident. Of and on throughout the book, he remembers the incidents from his past. His story consists of a man named Clifton and his wife, who become a part of his desert exploration team and how his life is altered by the love that grows between the patient and Clifton's beautiful wife, Katherine. Hana, on the other hand is attracted to a soldier called Kip, who is of Indian origin and who meets her by chance while he is on a job to detonate land mines. There develops a great friendship between Hana and Kip, to the point that they become lovers. There are instances in the story where Hana and the patient identify with each other in their thoughts and thus the bond. For example, in one conversation with Caravaggio, Hana says, "We both are in love with ghosts." The story revolves around the English patient's past and Hana's present, intervened by characters like Caravaggio, who are a part of both their present and the past.
The book is set up in the back-drop of the Second World War and thus the characters of Clifton and Caravaggio as spies for the British polity. The introduction of an Indian Sikh as a British army soldier points out at the political scenario of the world at that time. The book has pieces to illustrate the psychological effects of the war and reveals at several places, the inner loneliness and the sadness that constantly hung about in the air during that time.
Michael Ondaatje writes in the style that undoubtedly befits a piece of literature. The book is interspersed with past and present incidents which are so beautifully woven together that not once does the reader feel attached to just one part and not the other. The sensuality and the longing of the heart are essentially the most prominent ingredients of the book. The writing progresses in such a way as to connect the reader so vividly with the story that the reader's emotions oscillate in line with those of the characters. The author has brilliantly depicted how the human mind tends to go back to the most important good or evil moments of his life irrespective of the length of time elapsed. The use of imagery throughout the book is evident at several passages, for e.g. the depiction of the old and ruined villa and the comparable state of the patient as also the state of Hana's mind. The book tends to be almost poetic with such flowing language used by the author, as, 'The heart is but an organ of fire' or 'I'll be looking at the moon but seeing you'. All in all, the book is brimming with emotions, good, bad and grey, penned down to perfection by the author.
I feel the book is one of those rare pieces that are practically prose but are written so beautifully that they appear poetry. The characters are so human, their doubts and thoughts and actions are so natural that the reader immediately feels connected with them. Apart from these aesthetic traits, the story that the author has woven is bold and beautiful and sensuous. The book is a captivating narration which directly links the reader to a wide variety of incidents that are simultaneously emotional, historical and political, thus urging the reader to see each incident as an outcome of the varied circumstances around him/her and not as a detached result of the doings of just the heart or the mind.
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