NOTE: I don't post to this blog super-duper often anymore, because I'm busy writing, well, books. (Read more about that here.) For more up-to-date, day-to-day ramblings, visit my Facebook page.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel

Contemporary fiction
Harcourt Brace, 2001
326 pages  $16.00 

Sixteen-year-old Pi Patel, son of a zookeeper, is a boy of faith. He has embraced three religions—Catholicism, Islam, and Hindu—to the bewilderment of his secular family. The early part of his story concerns his search for faith; the latter part concerns a test of that faith.

When political upheaval urges Pi’s father to move the family from their native India to Canada, the story reaches its heart—and ours. The family’s shipboard passage is initially a sort of Noah’s ark adventure as the Patels transport their zoo animals to North America. But the adventure becomes desperate when Pi finds himself the sole human survivor in a lifeboat he shares with a Bengal tiger.

Here the Noah parallels end. While Martel suffuses the book with humor and wild, magical touches, this is no Disney tale of a boy and his tiger becoming best friends. Instead he explores how two species learn to survive together despite the fact that one is predator and the other, potential prey.

The book’s structure seems to allow for few surprises. Pi survives; this we know from the start. Though told in Pi’s “voice,” the book is based on a journalist’s interview of the adult Pi, years after the shipwreck. Yet like all great stories, the tension comes in the telling, not in the outcome. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever watched Hitchcock’s Rear Window for the fifth time and still can’t help hiding your eyes. It is in the how of the survival that keeps us riveted: How will Pi feed himself? How will he feed the Bengal tiger without becoming the main course? How long will they be at sea, and will either suffer some grave and irrevocable damage? And, as the story becomes ever stranger and unbelievable, we begin to wonder: What’s really up with Pi?

Some reviewers have compared Martel’s book to Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea—the same singular purpose, the same lonely pursuit of the goal, the ever-present sea always the enemy. But in fact, Martel’s book is not only longer, it’s much more compelling. Hemingway presumed a fascination with his topic that the reader may not share; Martel grabs his readers by the lapels and compels them to look at and live this fascinating story. We can’t tear ourselves away from resourceful Pi, who, though faithful, is never passive. Instead he becomes the protector, even the god, of the small world within his control. Thus a religious sensibility never overwhelms the story, but rather breathes as the fabric and weave of every word.

This is a story to read and savor. It’s that rare sort of book that you race through to find out what happens, only to be disappointed that you’ve run out of pages. When I had nearly finished reading my library copy, I was sorely tempted to buy the book just to have it on my shelf as a kind of constant friend. I settled for buying it as a gift for someone else.

No comments:

Post a Comment