The English Patient is a burnt soldier who no one expects to survive, looked after by a Canadian Nurse Hana in an abandoned villa in Italy during 1945. The war is over for this part of Italy, and Hana is happy to be alone in the deserted villa with the English Patient. She loves him for the stories he tells and his knowledge about almost everything. Then her father's friend, a thief during peace time and a spy during war, visits the villa to see her. The last arrival at the villa is Kip (Kirpal Singh), the Sikh who is a bomb defusal expert.
It is as disparate a group as one can get in the same place. All their stories are told concurrently, with the Italian villa as the back drop. And just when you think you are getting a hang of the story, Ondaatje surprises you with the back story of the burnt English patient and the riveting tale of his romance - with a colleague's wife and the desert. With the English patient, you are taken across the African desert, which he seems to love more than the woman. There is a final twist in the story when Kip, the bomb disposal expert learns about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ondaatje's prose is almost sensuous. He uses words like a weaver deftly weaving multiple threads into a rich tapestry.
Sample these two paragraphs for the richness of language Ondaatje indulges us with.
the books for the Englishman, as he listened intently or not, had gaps of plot like sections of a road washed out by storms, missing incidients as if locusts had consumed a section of tapestry, as if plaster loosened by the bombing had fallen away from a mural at night
We die containing a richness of loverds and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, dears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all of this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.