Penelope Lively reviews Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight” in this week’s issue. In 1992, Judith Grossman reviewed Ondaatje’s most celebrated book, “The English Patient,” noting the Canadian writer’s “distinctive, eloquent voice.” Below is an excerpt.
“The English Patient” begins in 1945, in a bomb-damaged Italian villa near Florence, recently used as a war hospital. Abandoned as the Allied front moved north, it now shelters one last casualty, an Englishman slowly dying of burns received in an air crash over Libya. Hana, a young Canadian nurse, stays on devotedly, supplying him with morphine and foraged food. They are joined by David Caravaggio, a friend of Hana’s family from Toronto who is a professional thief turned military spy, and by Kirpal Singh, a Sikh soldier, charged with defusing bombs and mines in the area. For this quartet of characters, the villa becomes a sanctuary in which identities damaged or erased by the war can be remade.
There’s the suggestion of a classic espionage thriller in this angle of the plot, but Mr. Ondaatje is after something else — a narrative reflection, perhaps, on the alternate exhilarations and terrors of life in wartime. Through interlaced scenes, each saturated with emotion, he uncovers the inner passions of his characters.
Hana’s grief over her father’s death earlier in the war; Caravaggio’s mourning for his lost vocation; Singh’s terrifying exploits with the bomb squad; the nameless patient’s pride in his memories of love. Their stories take us to extraordinary times and places, from muddy craters where giant “Satan” bombs are delicately disarmed by hand under unsteady flashlights, to hidden rock paintings in desert caves.
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