One of the uncalculated effects of World War II was the way it turned a generation of young people, conscripts and volunteers, into global explorers without a guidebook. Military orders might with equal unconcern drop a London clerk into the presence of Mount Everest . . Or, as vividly described in Michael Ondaatje's novel of the war in Europe, "The English Patient," a young Sikh from the Punjab into Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, on a bomb-disposal mission at night.
In addition to Kip, the Sikh combat engineer, the other "explorers without guidebooks" who are brought together after the war in a bombed-out Italian villa, are:
Hana, a shellshocked Canadian nurse; her burn patient, Almasy, an explorer of the Sahara; and Caravaggio, the Canadian thief-turned-spy who knew Hana as a child. Hana and Caravaggio are also in Ondaatje's previous novel In the Skin of a Lion, whose main character is Patrick, Hana's father.
Salon.com has an excellent article that compares the book with the Oscar-winning movie. Kip, who was my favorite character for his absolute refusal to get ruffled about anything, even a bomb that might be about to go off, isn't an important part of the movie. The historically accurate details in the novel about how continually changing bombs were defused were fascinating.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the idea of the English patient papering over the parts of Herodotus that he didn't want to reread and wrote notes on those pages - Juliette referred to it as his "commonplace book". If you were to carry one book around with you for the rest of your life, and used some of its pages as your own journal/notebook, which book would you choose?
Discussion questions for the book are available here and here.