Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review - Life of Pi

I've heard mention of Life of Pi for years but never knew much about it. All I'd heard was that it was the story of a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. And that it was a very good book. Recently I'd also heard that they were making it into a movie. So now, after waiting far too long, I finally dove in.

One of the first things that struck me was just how elegant and lovely the writing is. There are segments of writing that are absolutely poetic in their description and tone. The way the narrator describes the way he feels about life, religion and the world around him is very vivid and evocative. There are some wonderfully beautiful passages in this book.

Another thing that struck me immediately was the way the book was crafted. The book (at least my edition, and presumably all editions) starts out with an introduction by the author in which he explains that this is based on a true story taken from an interview with the actual character. When the author is first introduced to the story he is told that it is a story that will make a person believe in God. Even without this claim, as you read this book you are likely to sense some desire to explain God and Nature and the relationships in the Universe. But having this claim at the outset of the novel produces an overarching shadow hanging over the plot and compelling the reader to think about the passages on a different level than they otherwise might.

As we get into the story itself, most of the chapters are written in first person as presented by Pi (short for "Piscine") Patel. Interspersed throughout these main plot-driving chapters are shorter chapters in the author's voice commenting on his interview with Pi or with something that happened while he was researching the story. These insistences on realism help ground the story but also provide moments for the author to interject subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) commentary about a scene or an item of importance.

The book is divided into three Parts.

The First Part introduces us to Piscine "Pi" Patel and his family and life in India. They live in a small town in India running a zoo. Pi reminisces about his childhood; about the teasing and bullying that lead to his nickname; about life in the zoo; about the lessons on life that his father teaches him; and about Pi's journey into multiple religions.

Pi is born Hindu but in his early teens he discovers Christianity and Islam and dives headlong into all three religions. There are a few great pieces of narratives describing the struggle and balance of maintaining three religions. There is also a semi-heated scene when leaders from all three churches confront Pi and his family on the street and demand that he follow only a single religion. Pi's response is that he just wants to love God and he feels like each religion has its own unique benefits and methods to help him love God. He presents interesting arguments about the infighting among different religions when the bottom line is that we need to love one another and love God. It's an intriguing and well presented discussion.

Finally we prepare to transition to the Second Part of the book. Political turmoil is underway in India so the family decides it's time to move along. They make preparations to sell off the zoo animals and then board a ship for Canada. They are on the same cargo ship as a number of the animals they have sold and so on the journey Pi continues to interact with the animals.

The journey doesn't go as planned. Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic there is a storm and some other unexplained problems and the ship sinks. Pi is thrown onto a lifeboat. At first he thinks he is alone but he soon finds that there are other escapees from the ship. A handful of animals, including a Bengal Tiger.

The next many chapters outline Pi's journey and adventures traveling across the Atlantic ocean. There are great segments of narrative as Pi ponders on the sublime nature of being alone in the middle of the ocean staring out across nothing but water and sky. There are moments of tension and adventure as Pi tries to deal with the fact that he has a 450 pound meat eating beast sharing the same small craft. There are moments of disgust and desperation as Pi has to work with what little he has in order to survive.

In the end, Pi does survive. The overall tension of his survival is removed thanks to the note at the beginning pointing out that this is a true story composed largely through an interview with Pi. Removing the tension of inevitable death doesn't make the story any less dramatic. If anything it allows you to focus more on the storytelling. On the how and why he survives. On the journey and what happened there.

Part Three of the book concludes the story of Pi's adventure by outlining what happened to him once he finally reaches land and humanity. Even more interesting is his interview with representatives from the company in charge of the ship that sank. They are trying to determine the cause of the shipwreck and understand Pi's journey. First he tells them the same story we have just read. They find the story too fantastic and unbelievable. So he then tells them an alternate version of what might have happened. In the end, it's left unclear which is the true story. And even more thought provoking is the question of "Which story do you like better?" Or which story would you rather believe?

Through the first part of the book I was really enjoying the fairly straightforward descriptions of life and religion. I found them very interesting and enjoyable. Once we arrived on the water, it seemed like we were in a different type of story. An adventure story. But as I continued to read, I realized it was still the same sort of story and same sort of thoughts and discussions, just taken to a different level. When I finally reached the end and the strange interview in Part Three, I had to think back and reinvestigate all of Part Two again under a new mindset. It put the overarching theme into yet another new light.

While this is an enjoyable and interesting book at the high level, this book is a deep and multi-layered work of art that unravels thread after thread and lays them beside each other for you to study and ponder. The book calls upon the reader to evaluate your view on life, nature, religion, humanity and relationships. It presents a few ideas but in the end it challenges the reader to make up his or her own mind about these things and to act and life accordingly.

Some scenes may be a bit graphic for young readers but otherwise I think this is a book that anyone can enjoy at some level and most will find entrancing and thought provoking on many levels.

5 out of 5 stars

View all my reviews


Brian Miller said...

i loved this it when it came out on a plane trip across the states...could not put it down...hear there will be a that will be interesting...

logankstewart said...

I really enjoyed this book a lot, but I also found it a bit too long and wordy, too. The writing was evocative for sure, there just was too much of rehashing the same stuff over and over. Still, enjoyable. Great review.

Julie Daines said...

Like you, this is one of those books that has been on my "to read" list for a long time, but I've actually never read. You've rekindled my interest and I'm going to read it. Thanks.