Book Review: Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What in the hell did i just read?

I picked this book up because it was available from the digital library and i was in the mood for something fun. I was expecting something like Cast Away with a tiger. I’ve never seen Cast Away, mind you, but i know that it involves Tom Hanks having conversations with a volleyball, so in my mind it’s generally a lighthearted story. Life of Pi turned out to be considerably darker than what i had in mind—not in an oh-the-humanity way, but in a weirder way.

I began reading with the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book. Thinking that it was Yann Martel’s actual introduction to the book and seeing that it was rather long-winded and narcissistic, i skimmed it. It described the author suffering a poor book reception, searching for new inspiration, taking his bag of money to India to do some writing (à la Elizabeth Gilbert), and happening to speak to a local there who told him a great story, which became the basis of the book i was about to read. The main character, Pi Patel, was a living, breathing human whom the author visited and interviewed. Ah, so this is a true story?! I thought. Well. I was misled.

But before i get into that, i want to mention that i almost didn’t make it through Part One of the book. Part One takes up about a third of the book and comprises Pi’s backstory, from childhood up until he boards the ship that was meant to take his family and part of their zoo to Canada but winds up sinking. Pi becomes fascinated with religions at an early age and adopts not just one, but three of them. And of no discernible consequence to the rest of the story is his near-sighted derision of atheists and agnostics. These snide remarks bubbled up several times, to no effect except to dare me to put the book down. They weren’t really even followed up later in the book. I’m still not certain what their purpose was.

So the book is set up as being a story about faith. Fine. Except… If that’s truly the book’s aim, it did a pretty terrible job of making me believe in God or even making a case for faith. I’m a tough cookie when it comes to those matters, i know, but i truly made an effort to be open-minded in this case. It’s only fiction, after all. But i just don’t see that this book is really even about God.

About halfway through, i checked Wikipedia (carefully, trying to avoid spoilers,) to see if this was indeed a true story. It isn’t. It’s billed there as a fantasy, which served to confuse me further. How is this book a fantasy, i wondered. It’s far-fetched, but not fantastic. I read on.

Stories of survival are fascinating to me (as long as they aren’t too brutal. I’m never going to read the story of that guy who hacked his own arm off. Nope. I’ll stick to the untrue survival stories for now). I love it when characters devise clever ways of staying alive, and there was plenty of that in this book, which i enjoyed a lot.

Then, at about 80 percent of the way through the book, the story became a very different story. It went from being a far-fetched but plausible story to being something that Jules Verne might have written. It got dark, and then it got weird, and then it got darker and weirder. It turned into a sci-fi. And then in the last ten percent it concluded with one of those maddening endings that sci-fi writers love to write that leave you going “so… WTF actually happened?” I like those and hate them at the same time. And it’s not really clever anymore. Too many writers have done this already.

So i’m giving this book three stars despite its beginning and its end, because the middle was pretty entertaining. And i actually liked the weird stuff toward the end quite a lot. If Part Three had been something that tied things up nicely rather than just sort of unceremoniously pulling back the curtain, i think the book would’ve been a lot stronger.

Now i’m going to have to watch the movie, in spite of the CG tiger.

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