Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
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*****Life of Pi

by Yann Martel

Reviewed May 15, 2003.
Harcourt, New York, 2001.  First published in Canada.  319 pages.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize.
Available at Sembach Library (F MAR).
A Sonderbooks’ Stand-out of 2003:  #4, Literary Fiction

Life of Pi reminds me of Feed, by M. T. Anderson, in that it is not exactly a pleasant story, but it is written with exquisite perfection.  I can’t imagine such a story being told in any other way.  For that matter, I could never have imagined such a story.  This is an amazing book.

I had read a review and knew that Life of Pi is about a boy stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a full-grown Bengal tiger.  I must have thought that the story was somehow mystical and metaphorical.  No, this is a survival story that convinces you that a sixteen-year-old boy, at least a sixteen-year-old boy like Pi Patel, actually could survive for months in a life boat with a Bengal tiger.

The story is written simply and charmingly.  We meet Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a pool in Paris, as he grows up in India, where his father keeps a zoo.  Pi learns about animals, and also about God.  He begins practicing Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.  There’s a funny scene where his mentors from each religion all come up to his parents at once to congratulate them on their fine spiritual son.  Pi doesn’t see any contradiction.  He simply wants to love God.  (Don’t worry--I’m not saying I think this is a good way to live.  It did make Pi a fascinating character.)

Then his family sets out on a ship to move to Canada.  The zoo has been closed, and they are transporting many animals that have been sold to zoos around the world.  The ship sinks.

Many parts of the survival story are not at all pleasant.  Though he does end up alone on the lifeboat with the tiger, at the start there is also a zebra, orangutan and jackal.  Those animals do not survive, and that part of the story is tremendously frightening.  We know that Pi will survive.  The author tells us early on that this story has a happy ending--If I hadn’t known that, I probably would have closed the book in disgust, sure Pi was about to be horribly eaten.  What we can’t imagine is how he possibly can live to tell the tale.

An amazing book and an amazing story.  From start to finish, it is magnificently written.  As I study writing, I’ve learned that often it’s better to skip introductory material and weave them into the story.  This author did the opposite.  He cut out the closing material and wove it into the beginning.  At the start of the book, the author meets Pi and we learn about his life after the tiger.  This is perfect for this book, keeping us reading and then being able to close the book with a punch.  You also find yourself wanting to re-read the beginning to catch tidbits that you didn’t appreciate fully the first time.

This book may not be pleasant reading all the way through, but it is truly a masterpiece.

Review of another book by Yann Martel:
The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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