In this intensely lyrical novel set during World War II, a pilot whose body has been burned beyond recognition lies alive but slowly festering in a ruined villa in northern Italy. The villa had once been a hospital for Allied casualties, but the campaign has moved on, leaving this one victim of the North African conflict. Immobile for the most part, the English patient (as he is called throughout the novel) tells stories of his demise in the desert and how he fell in love at the outset of the fighting. Cared for by Hana, a Canadian nurse who lost her father earlier in the war, he becomes the surrogate upon whom this nurse vents her grief.
But soon Hana finds an even better tabula rasa on which to project her sense of loss, a Sikh soldier named Singh, who appears at the villa in the midst of defusing land mines in the surrounding hill towns. Hana discovers that her desires for Singh are inextricably intertwined with her yearning to cure the present as well as the past. She learns that "a man not of your own blood can break upon your emotions more than someone of your own blood. As if falling into the arms of a stranger, you discover the mirror of your own choice."
Indeed, this sentiment of seeing one's reflection in another so different is key to understanding the powerful ellipses of Ondaatje's beautifully written novel. For his characters are thrown together in this setting of romantic decay, and it is only through their interactions, as well as their contact with the English patient, that they are able to achieve a rare glimpse of their deeper selves. (Knopf, $21)