This book is: about a boy and a boat.
Other elements: tigers, prairie dogs, turtles, boats, survival, religion, science, biology, human and animal relationships, the human mind.
Read it: if you’re interested in zoology, tiger taming, lifeboat survival, or religions. If you enjoy wonderfully precise description.
Overall rating: 8/10
I see this book as having 3 distinct parts. I’d give the first part a 6, the middle a 9.5, and the end a 4. In Beckyland, a place where numbers are flexible, that averages out to an 8.
Martel’s writing is excellent, although I was occasionally thrown by the structure/plot of the novel. But that didn’t keep me from thoroughly enjoying this book, especially the middle section. That’s all I can say without spoilers, so I’m hiding the rest of the review under a jump. If you don’t want to know anything about what happens in Life of Pi, stop reading now.
I’m going to keep discussing this novel in three parts, since it felt like three different books to me.
Part 1: Pi’s family, their zoo, and several gods.
The reader learns the story of Pi’s name, a little bit about his family dynamic, and a lot about his family’s zoo. Pi also discovers a fascination with religion of all kinds, and makes forays into several different religious practices simultaneously. I found his comparison of the personalities of the Hindu and Christian deities to be particularly fascinating. That, along with the details about zoo animals, were the high points of this introductory section.
Despite those high points, this first part of the story felt rather fragmented to me and I kept getting bored. That may have partly been because I was sitting there thinking “Isn’t there supposed to be a kid in a boat with a tiger? Am I crazy? Where is the boat?” That is my fault, not the book’s fault.
Part 2: The boy, the boat, and the tiger.
The reader watches in horrified fascination as the ship carrying Pi’s family and a number of their zoo animals goes down, leaving no survivors except for Pi and a few animals (a tiger, a hyena, and a zebra) in a lifeboat. It’s not long before Pi and the tiger are alone.
Boy + tiger + lifeboat is an interesting enough starting point to give any author a shot at greatness, but it’s the way Mantel writes it that makes this so exceptional. The story proceeds with a clinical precision that gives the reader exact snapshots of the series of events that helps a boy and a tiger survive on a lifeboat for 200-odd days. To call these descriptions vivid would be an understatement.
The religious undertones of the experience of being shipwrecked coupled with the merciless practicality that Pi must implement in order to survive is a fascinating juxtaposition. Pi is conscious of the potential religious significance of the situation and yet his survival is entirely due to his knowledge of zoology and scientific approach to staying alive.
I love that Richard Parker (the tiger) has such a clear personality, and it’s not the personality of an anthromorphized kitty cat. He’s a wild animal on a boat, and he’s dangerous. But he sees the world in a certain way, and because Pi understands tigers he is able to cohabitate with one.
There was one part of this that I didn’t love, and that was the encounter with the other blind, shipwreck-ee in a lifeboat. I actually skimmed it until I realized it wasn’t a hallucination, because I was so sure it wasn’t real. I still don’t entirely know what to make of it.
Part 3: Mexico and psychological damage.
Pi and the tiger reach land! Richard Parker bounds off without a backward glance. Pi is rescued and taken to a hospital, where some officials from the Japanese shipping company that owned the sunken ship come to interview him. And then followed my least favorite part of the book.
The two representatives of the shipping company think that Pi lying to them about almost everything. Pi-as-a-child can tell and it’s even more obvious to Pi-the-adult-narrator, who has had the Japanese parts of the conversation translated from a transcription. In the face of this skepticism, Pi immediatly provides an alternative version of events.
The alternate story is horrifying, utterly un-romantic, brutal, articulate, and extremely detailed. Pi tells it with so little hesitation that the reader is forced to consider the possibility that there never was a tiger,that perhaps Pi’s brain made up the tiger as a way to spare him from the horror of what really happened.
Overall, I’m glad I read this and I’d recommend it to anyone. But I’m very interested to hear what other people thought about the ending. Did it upset you too? Which story do you think is real?