Friday, April 27, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This is one of those books that, since it first appeared in book stores in 2001, has been put on summer reading lists over the last several years and displayed on well though-out table displays in bookstores. I eventually read it myself (pretty sure I picked it up from one of the aforementioned tables) and immediately fell in love with it.

The Situation: Piscine Patel, or Pi, has enjoyed a fairly affluent life in India where his father owns a zoo. He is a fairly normal young man with the usual issues and an above average understanding of animals, but at 14 years old he decides to follow Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. He sees benefits in all three and does not wish to choose just one, and, according to the narrator, he continues to follow all three into his adult life. Pi's father eventually decides to sell the zoo and boards a ship to Canada with some of the animals on board. However, the boat sinks, but Pi manages to commandeer a small life boat and survive the sinking of the ship.

The Problem: A Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (weird, I know) also manages to make it onto the life boat with Pi. And if that wasn't crazy enough, so does a hyena, an orangutan, and an injured zebra. After a few days, only Pi and Richard Parker remain...I won't say how as it is pretty horrifying, but most readers could probably take a pretty good guess.

Pi and Richard Parker are then stuck together aimlessly floating for 227 days. Both must fight intense fear (obviously mostly on Pi's side), and of course starvation and also a little insanity from being on the endless open water for so long. Personally, because I have a thing about large cats, I would have probably felt better chancing it in the water...and I can't swim.

Genre, Themes, History: For certain this is a novel of survival, but that is not all it is. There is also a good amount of animal psychology, discussion of religion and the idea that sometimes we choose what to believe in the face of awful and terrifying truth.

The name "Richard Parker" was, of course, chosen for a purpose. There are a number of men in history who were named Richard Parker that ended up being the victim of cannibalism after being shipwrecked. Also, in Edgar Allan Poe's adventure novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the character named Richard Parker is the only mutineer on a ship that isn't killed or thrown overboard. Instead, he is kept alive to help run the ship.

My Verdict: I pretty much recommend this book to almost everyone I meet looking for a good book to read, especially when going on a trip. It isn't a heavy read, but it isn't pure fluff either. The tension between Pi and his desire to live versus his desire to not be alone and therefore keep the tiger with him on the life boat is extremely well done. It is pretty hard to sell most people on a book that mostly takes place out on the open water and centers on the fate of a tiger and teenage boy stuck on a life boat together (I have been trying to get my mom to read it for YEARS), but trust me on this is so worth it.

Favorite Moment: Not to spoil anything, but my favorite moment is near the end when Pi offers up an alternative version to all that has happened.

Favorite Character: Although he scares the crap out of me, my favorite character eventually becomes Richard Parker. But again, a lot of that has to do with Pi's alternate story.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend Martel's latest novel Beatrice and Virgil, but I actually felt that one to be a massive let down, so instead I'll go with another one of those books that is always on a display table next to Life of Pi: Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. A completely different kind of book, but I think it is almost as good.

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