Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Life of Pi by Yann Martel ~ Book Review

Well, I'm certainly late to get on the "must read" bandwagon for this book.  In all honesty it's not a book that ever drew my attention when it first came out in spite of seemingly everyone talking about it and it winning a Canadian award.  I couldn't imagine reading a story about a boy in a lifeboat with a tiger that had a time span of 227 days.   But when the movie came out I went with hubby because he loves the 3D and went for that reason alone.   And while the movie was a visual spectacle, I left scratching my head, totally confused with the story.  So jump ahead to today and here I am reading the book for basically 2 reasons...the first being one of the challenges on my Reading List Challenge 2015 is "A book with non-human characters".   This category is not my norm for choosing a book so it definitely challenged me to find one that I would actually be interested in reading, but my 2nd reason was to maybe have it make sense of the movie for me.

So "Life of Pi" it was.  Now most everyone has by now heard the gist of the storyline.  A 16 yr. old boy from Pondicherry, India finds himself the only survivor of a shipwreck somewhere out of Manilla in the Pacific ocean along with a tiger, a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena.  He survives 227 days out at sea trying to survive on a lifeboat while watching as 3 of the animals die "survival of the fittest" deaths until it is only him and the Bengal tiger left.  He must learn how to survive not only the elements and the tiger but discouragement and lonliness and lack of hope as time goes on.

The first third of the book tells the background story of Pi (the nickname he adopted because of being relentlessly teased for his full name of Piscine) growing up with his family in India.  His father who owned and ran the Pondicherry zoo was an atheist and raised his children to fear and understand the wild nature of the animals in spite of interacting  with them on a daily basis. Richard Parker, the bengal tiger, came to the zoo as a young cub so Pi grew up along with the tiger.   In spite of his father's beliefs, or non-belief as it were, Pi goes on to openly embrace 3 religions to which he is exposed.  In fact, the story opens with a journalist who is being directed to go find Pi because of his incredible story, a story that will make him believe in God.  There is much time spent in discussing the overall view of the 3 major religions in this third of the book and how Pi rationalizes the acceptance of all three in his young boyhood.  I found myself skimming a lot of this as it just didn't hold my interest and didn't make sense to me.  (There was also lots of endlessly run on sentences in this part of the book.)  The three religions are so far apart from each other in their belief systems that I found it far-fetched that a person can live by all three.  One of these  was Christianity which is clear in the fact that "Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to God but through Him"  (John 14:6).  So asking me accept the young Pi justifying and rationalizing living by 3 (Hindu and Islam were the other 2) was hard to compute for me even though it was through the viewpoint of a young boy.  I could understand his interest in all three, as I had an interest in religions as a young kid, but I was also very clear that in their differences one can really only choose one to take to heart and live by.  Accepting all three even from a kid's viewpoint just was not realistic to me, then or now.

The second part of the book deals with Pi's actual survival on the lifeboat.  This is where the story really picked up for me and was hard to put down.  The writing seemed to get much more focused and better.  Gone were the endless sentences.  There are some gruesome detail about the animals and their lack of survival that was hard for me to read, but for the most part the descriptions of Pi's feelings during this part of the story were gripping and real.  His beliefs and zoo background come into play to help him and the choices he has to make to survive did make me think.  His having to face surviving on a daily basis after hope for rescue dwindled was heartbreaking and his ingenuity had me amazed at times and crying at times as he had to face doing what he had to do in order to survive.  I couldn't put this part of the story down.

That is until he comes to the odd floating algae island.  Then this took a hard to make sense of it turn in the story for me.  I'm not good with allegory, I'm more of a face value story kind of person, so trying to figure out what it all meant was exhausting for me and I slugged along through this part.

Though I think most everyone has heard of the story and knows what happens if you haven't then this last part of the review is cautioned with a SPOILER ALERT and you may want to skip the next paragraph.

 The last half of the book deals with Pi finally, after 227 days at sea with a tiger, reaching land.   It's heartbreaking as Pi deals with the loss of the only living, breathing thing that has kept him sane and with some company for seven months.  Then he has to deal with two officials from the Japanese shipping offices who come to ask what he knows of the ship's sinking.  As he tells them the story they are very disbelieving that all this could happen and since there is no Richard Parker around to confirm it they have a hard time.   So he gives them another story, one much more "realistic" though gruesome.  They are then asked, as is the reader, which is the better story.  We are  left to ponder which lens and perspective we view the world through  This third of the book found me skimming a lot too, because of the way it is written.  It is written as an actual transcript of the discussion between Pi and the officials so to me it came off a bit dry.

So this book really had it's highs and it's blah portions for me.  I'm glad I read it, the story is always so much better than the movie for the most part for me.  The time at sea surely was the best portion, but trying to figure out all the allegory was not my cup of tea nor was trying to figure out Pi's closing statement about God after the officials chose which story they thought to be better.  It is definitely a work of story telling.    And it leaves one thinking long after the cover is closed on the book.  It is more than a fantastical story of survival, it is a story that asks to examine one's faith and the lense through which  we view things and whether we are able to believe the amazing things that take faith or whether you look at the world through the absolutes and practicals of what makes sense to your mind.  I think this book would make excellent discussions as a reading group choice.

I gave it a 7.5 out 10

Reading Challenge 2015 goals met:  A book with non-human characters, A book that made me cry, A book that became a movie, A book by an author I've never read before, A book set in a different country,


Karen said...

I saw the movie and honestly can't remember many of the details. I think it's because there was so much hype, that it just couldn't live up to my expectations. It sounds like the book had a lot more to it.

Barbara H. said...

I had avoided it because of the multi-religuious aspect - as you say, you can really only truly accept one, especially if that one is Christianity. But I also just thought the whole thing sounded kind of weird. I don't think I'd ever be inclined to read it, with everything else stacked up, but I am glad to hear more about it from someone I actually know who has read it.

Faith said...

my husband and I took our youngest and her 2 cousins to the movie when it first came out during our thanksgiving break and we LOVED IT! It was so well done....the symbolism......the whole struggle to survive despite the was such a good movie!!!