The historical backdrop for this novel is the Second World War in Northern Africa and Italy. Hana, a young Canadian Army nurse, lives in the abandoned Villa San Girolamo in Italy, which is filled with hidden, undetonated bombs. In her care is the man nicknamed "the English patient," of whom all she knows is that he was burned beyond recognition in a plane crash before being taken to the hospital by a Bedouin tribe. He also claimed to be English. The only possession that the patient has is a copy of Herodotus' histories that survived the fire. He has annotated these histories and is constantly remembering his explorations in the desert in great detail, but cannot state his own name. The patient is, in fact, László de Almásy, a Hungarian desert explorer who was part of a British cartography group. He chose, however, to erase his identity and nationality.