Sam Mills was born in 1975 and studied English at Lincoln College, Oxford. She has written two 'crossover' books - published in some countries on adult lists, in others as teenage fiction: A Nicer Way to Die and The Boys Who Saved the World. The latter is a political thriller about a group of boys who, disillusioned with the world around them, form their own religion and set out to do good. They become convinced that an Asian girl in their school is a terrorist and, when nobody will listen to them, they kidnap her and hide out in a deserted cottage, where they send out broadcasts to the government and media demanding that laws on terror be made tougher. The book is a satire on the war on terror, a thriller, a love story and an exploration of religious faith all rolled into one. It is currently being made into a film. Sam is now working on a third novel for young adults, Shooting Words, and her debut adult novel. Below she discusses Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.
Sam Mills on The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
My favourite novel is probably The English Patient. I first picked it up in 1997. I read about 50 pages and decided that I didn't like it much. It is not an easy book, and in 1997 I was not a very discerning reader. I could see that the writing - which blurs between poetry and prose - was very beautiful, but I found it difficult to become engrossed in the fragmented narrative. The story is mostly set in 1945, in the dying days of World War II, in an abandoned villa, where the lives of four strangers, jaded from war, gradually interlace. It progresses in fits and starts, building layer upon layer, employing a kaleidoscope of voices.
I came back to The English Patient in 2000, read it through and began to like it more; I read it again the next year; and the next; and a few more years and reads later I realized it was a work of genius. I think that the most interesting novels can often work like this. They're not always the easiest of reads; they can be uncomfortable at first, take their time to grow on us. I did enjoy the film very much, but the love story between Katharine Clifton and Almásy is very romanticized. In the book, it is darker and more destructive, more painful and tragic.
One of the most fascinating narrative devices is the way in which Almásy - lying in the Italian villa, recounting scrambled pieces of his past to different characters - recounts his love affair again and again. Sometimes he remembers a look Katharine gave him; sometimes a reading in the desert; sometimes his memory rambles; sometimes it is succinct. It brilliantly captures the way the love affair has embedded itself in his psyche like a piece of shrapnel that can't be removed; he can only circle back to it again and again. The book is divided into different sections and in the middle there is a section simply entitled 'Katharine'. In the space of about ten pages, their love affair is summed up in a series of brief vignettes. These vignettes capture the subtle nuances of their relationship - they bicker over who will carry Katharine's bag up to the hotel room - as well as the more violent aspects as Almásy gathers a list of wounds from his lover. They are perhaps the most electrifying ten pages in the novel; they are certainly the most intense description of a love affair I have ever read.
The fractured narrative - which I disliked at first - creates a sensation of shellshock within the text itself. The jumbled, confused, broken chronology reflects the shattered characters trying to piece their lives back together. And the writing itself is beautiful and sensuous. After I'd finished reading The English Patient my mind felt coloured with vivid images: Hanna sitting in the ruined villa, on a half-ruined staircase filled in with books, a thought scurrying through her mind 'like a mouse'; Almásy lying in the desert after the plane crash, approached by a medicine man who looks like an angel, uncorking potions that make camels scream; Katharine dying in the Cave of the Swimmers. It is a work of extraordinary imagination, so soaked in ideas, character and gorgeous language that I can read it again and again and always find something new to delight in.