The English Patient was for me one of those books that changed the way I read. I think what I responded to was something I’d call opacity: the way Ondaatje simultaneously reveals and hides facets of the characters and details of the plot to create a landscape and mood at once clearly visible and at the same time cloudy and uncertain. This opacity of writing seemed to capture something of what life was like, a verisimilitude that I had yet to encounter or perceive in any other writer.
I’ve since read all of Ondaatje’s other work, and spent time writing about it and even teaching his work. While I’ve enjoyed much of his other work, The English Patient has remained a touchstone text for me, along with a couple of the poems that act in similar ways. Where Coming Through Slaughter and In the Skin of a Lion try to accomplish this opacity, they’re not quite as good as my first encounter; Anil’s Ghost was a tremendous disappointment to me. He’s sufficiently important, though, that I needed to read Divisadero.
It’s a strong novel, perhaps as good in my estimation as In the Skin of a Lion. The first half of it revolves around two daughters and an almost-brother, a family and a relationship with it that is fractured irretrievably by an episode of violence. The sisters part company, and the father is a figure lost in mist thereafter, referred to only vaguely. Each sister bears the scars—an important idea indeed for Ondaatje—of this encounter as they progress through their respective lives, and the scar tissue is rubbed and agitated in a variety of new encounters and relationships. The second half revolves around the life of a poet, and the relationships in his life. These two portions are interwoven only minimally, and I’m glad for the serendipity of just having finished reading some of Dillard! (In fact, Ondaatje quotes a beautiful portion of Dillard near-ish to the end of the book.) The reader is left to make connections for herself or himself, and to come to whatever understanding of the story is possible for her life or his life. In fact, I think the connection is left perhaps too tenuous, and just a few scattered lines might have left me thinking of this book as an interconnected whole rather than two intriguing novellas linked so very barely.
It's a good book, and well worth the read. For me, though, it's no The English Patient.