Genre: Philosophical Fiction
Publishing Info: 2002 by Canongate Books Ltd (originally by Knopf Canada in 2001)
Back Cover Summary:
One Boy, One Boat, One Tiger
After a tragic shipwreck, a solitary lifeboat is left at the mercy of the wild blue waters of the Pacific. The only survivors are a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orang-utan – and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. Now a major motion picture from acclaimed director Ang Lee, the much loved Life of Pi is a bewitching tale of adventure and friendship – and of finding courage in the most unexpected places.
Also known as the book with the boy and the tiger on a raft in the ocean, Life of Pi deserves the praise it has received from critics and audiences alike. It has an interesting central concept and contributes to the discussion on the blurring of reality and fiction in literature, as well as the unreliable narrator trope. However, its slow pacing and the lack of variety in pace and tone with sections that step away from the slow burning narrative does make it a difficult book to complete.
*This book review does contain spoilers for the plot*
To give this review some context, this book was read during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK in 2020. Long days were spent at home and individuals could only leave the house once a day for exercise. Retrospectively, this was the wrong time to read a book in the Philosophical Fiction genre, despite the fantastical elements in this that allowed my thoughts to drift at least partially away from current circumstances. This is why I gave it time between finishing Life of Pi and producing my review of it, to allow my mind to process every element.
The book was an interesting read, not least because it never gives a definitive answer as to whether the person recalling events from years ago, the titular Pi, is an unreliable narrator. This question comes to a head when he recounts his story to a couple of individuals investigating a freight ship sinking, first the tale that was presented to readers, and a second where he substitutes his animal companions with human individuals. Though one may think that he adapted the story in order to tell the investigators what they want to hear, the answer may be more complex than that. The first few chapters of this book feature many descriptions of animals in the zoo, which the family of the adolescent Pi owns. In these chapters, Pi talks about the kind of behaviours that are shared by both animal and humankind. This, coupled with the way in which he tells both versions of the recollection with neither being more or less believable than the other, leads me to conclude that it is unknown what truly happened on the raft. This element makes the book more interesting to read, as it feels like it links into the studying of multiple religions, which is discussed alongside the animal analogies.
Another standout feature of this book is the description and intensity of the central section, where Pi is drifting on the raft with a variety of animals. There is paragraph after paragraph of rich descriptions, not just of the setting but also the movement and behaviour of the animals and Pi’s inner dialogue in response to this. Though this was a novel and interesting concept on which the majority of the book is based on, I am in two minds on how successful this is once the novelty factor wears off. On the one hand, minus a couple of excursions and intriguing moments, the base activity is of Pi dodging the threatening presence of the hyena, and later the tiger. After a while, this did feel a bit tiresome and repetitive, so much so that I felt less glued to the narrative and description and was in anticipation for something to happen. On the flip side, when the wait was finally ended by a venture to a saltwater island, it felt intended by the author, as though they knew that the reader and Pi would share the relief of change. The chapters dedicated to this, as well as a couple of earlier excursions, felt worth the wait as they provided something different, whilst still staying true to the themes of the rest of the book.
The central tale of this novel is essentially that, as sections of the book are introduced by a much older Pi reporting his story to a journalist/writer who is essentially the audience’s surrogate. Further investigation into this book seems to suggest that the writer is the author of the book, Yann Martel, himself, and that his presence also links into the theme of a potentially unreliable narrator. The book is opened with a note that contains entirely fictional events, yet the fact that the readers are in effect reading into all of this, combined with the slightly meta addition of a character based on the author, does further open out this theme. Taking away this point however, these bookends don’t feel like much of a circuit-breaker. I am less invested in being taken away from Pi’s story towards these chapters because the pacing of both is relatively similar, tension aside, so the contrast isn’t really that strong. It certainly does add to the interesting questions about the blurring of reality and fiction that is prominent through the rest of the text, but they are among the weaker parts of the novel.
Life of Pi definitely deserves its plaudits and place in literary history for its discussion on the storytelling process, religion and the bond between humans and animals. There were definitely some stand-out moments, and the central concept is an interesting one. Far too often though, the lack of variety in narrative was also what made this a more difficult read than the usual book, regardless of it being read in a pandemic. It is worth it if readers manage to complete the book, but I would understand if it became too heavy and repetitive to get through the lengthy middle section.
Star Rating: 3/5
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