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Life of Pi – Yann Martel: A Review

February 4, 2013

It sounds ridiculous, but before I read Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, I thought it was a book about the number (3.14159 etc) and I couldn’t imagine anything more boring to read than a book about the life of a number. It was only when I saw the trailer for the film adaptation that I realised my grave, grave error and determined to read the book as soon as I possibly could. My prayers were answered at Christmas, when my mother, ever in tune with my literary projects, bought me a lovely hardback copy. I dug in straight away, excited to see how the events depicted in the film trailer were linked together in this beautiful orange book.

As reading, I found Life of Pi quite hard work. Although the chapters are, for the most part, very short and so reading can be done in very manageable chunks, each chapter is very dense and there’s a lot to take in. This isn’t the kind of novel you can afford to skim read, and it took me the best part of a month to devour. I had to have quite a few late nights (on work nights as well…) to be able to stop reading at a point where I was satisfied.

In terms of plot, I found that Life of Pi seemed to take a while to get going. I know the story is about the whole of Pi’s life, but when you sort of know what’s coming, his fascination with different faiths and the inclusion of rather tedious descriptions of the behaviour of animals seems like unnecessary stalling ahead of the main action. I also didn’t like that Pi alludes a few times to the conclusion of the story before it’s even really begun. Spoiler alert here, but if you already know that when Pi’s lifeboat eventually strikes shore, Richard Parker the tiger is just going to leg it into the jungle never to be seen again, it taints everything you learn about Pi’s relationship with RP over the course of the main body of the novel. Personally, I feel like the ending would have been more poignant and emotional had Martel kept back that detail, so that the reader saw Pi and RP’s relationship gradually evolving over the course of the novel, and then was confronted afresh at the end by the tiger’s abandonment of the human and the sad realisation that no matter how close to an animal you are or become, it is inevitably still an animal that will put its own survival above all other instincts.

That aside, Martel conjures, through Pi’s narrative, some startling and sublime imagery that I can perfectly envisage in film. He is able, through Pi’s matter of fact tone about the animals he becomes stranded with, to perfectly depict the shocking savagery of the animal kingdom. I’m one of those people who, very wrongly, likes to attribute human qualities to the animals in my life (I run outside to rescue the mice my cat catches before he can go in for the kill to stop him becoming too animal), and found the deaths of the zebra and the orangutan very distressing. I didn’t feel much emotional attachment to the hyena. He’d already murdered the zebra and the orangutan so he deserved it when Richard Parker went after him. Pi’s increasing desperation and physical weakening comes across really well, especially as you realise how far he is departing from beliefs he has cultivated since the earliest parts of childhood in order to ensure his own survival. In Pi’s case, it seems that there is nothing he won’t resort to in order to secure his life, which is both sad and exceptionally admirable.

I found the concluding third part, where Pi is interviewed by the Japanese men as he recovers from his ordeal, to be a very anticlimactic ending to the novel and to Pi’s “adventure”. It’s like one day he’s on a carnivorous island sharing a boat with a wild Bengal tiger, and the next it’s all over, he’s in hospital recovering, being interviewed by men who want to know what happened to the ship he was travelling on and then it’s all over. Of course, the reader knows from the beginning of the book that Pi’s life has turned out OK, that he went to Canada, was fostered, went to university, married and has one child that we know about, but it may have been more cathartic for the readers, instead of the abrupt ending they are met with, to read more about Pi’s life after his lifeboat comes ashore in Mexico, such as his early days in Canada, how he met his wife, or similar.

Overall, I wouldn’t consider this as a book for the faint-hearted. The written style doesn’t lend itself to being a “quick” read and there are places where you have to have a strong stomach and a strong heart to get through the book. However, it does seem to have become an iconic piece of literature and is a fascinating survival story, and therefore must be read by everyone in their lifetime.

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