When it comes to reading, I am more of a polygamist than a monogamist: I fall in love often and read widely rather than committing to one writer and gulping down all their works. I’m therefore hesitant to write about the book that changed my life – so many have affected me (and continue to affect me), both creatively and personally. But if you were to pin me down and ask me to choose (a mean, mean thing to do), I’d have to say The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.
At seventeen, when I first read the novel, I was a hopeless romantic and just beginning to discover the power of language. The lyricism of Ondaatje’s prose is hypnotic: I remember being moved to tears by the sound of a sentence. I read the novel over and over, learnt passages off by heart and listened to Ralph Fiennes reading the audio version (I was infatuated with him at the time – still am, a bit…). Ondaatje taught me what a writer can do with language, how you can fuse poetry and prose, create music, play with the sequence of plot and time and treat your characters with compassion, despite their flaws.
Two additional facts give The English Patient a special place in my life. In my third year of teaching I was given a wonderfully bright and open-minded Sixth Form class and had the chance to explore the novel through their eyes. Watching young people fall in love with a novel I cherished was such a gift. A few years later, my husband gave me a first edition and an uncorrected proof of the novel for my birthday. This was shortly after we met, in that wonderful heady, falling-in-love stage. He also set about reading he novel, despite it not really being his cup of tea – one of those lovely, sacrificial things men do to win our affection.
I am sure that the novel will continue to follow me. I can’t wait to share it with my little girl, Tennessee Skye.