Yann Martel’s unconventional tale of one teenage boy’s survival on the high seas following the sinking of the cargo ship on which he, his family, and their zoo animals were crossing the Pacific uses observations of the social interactions of those animals and the common goals of competing religious ideologies to examine human nature at its core. This approach helps Life of Pi’s narration stand out from other tales of struggling survival in dire circumstances (and teaches the reader more than they likely ever thought possible about animals and how to train and house them).
Though this odd book gets off to a rather slow and halting start, both figuratively and literally with Pi’s recounting of the topic he researched while working for his zoology degree, the sloth, the quick switch to tales from his childhood in India help build the readers’ interest and gain their attention. I found young Pi’s fascination and devotion to not one but three religions amusing and a great way to keep faith in the tale (a quintessential factor in his surviving the ordeal) without crossing the line into preaching at the reader. Pi’s innocence and embarrassment when each of his religious figureheads try to claim him exclusive as their own is eye opening in unexpected ways.
At times the narrator’s diversions into excessive detail created a drag on the narrative’s pacing. Some of Pi’s lists of supporting examples felt like they were only there to add length and sound impressive. For the most part, though, the novel is well paced for maintaining the reader’s attention. There is just enough of Pi’s first week adrift at sea before Martel segues into a summary of the rest of Pi’s time on the lifeboat for the reader to be spared the tediousness that the character suffered. It’s actually amazing how little boredom passes from the character to the reader considering the subject.
Told mostly by Pi, there are brief breaks where a secondary narrator takes over, someone who knows Pi from his life in Toronto. These breaks were missed during Part Two, the section entirely devoted to the shipwreck (it was nice to have the secondary narrator’s brevity to contrast with Pi’s surplus verbiage). It was a relief when the narrative strategy shifted again in Part Three.
Life of Pi is yet another novel with an above satisfactory ending. The third and final part of the book challenges the readers’ impressions of the rest of the novel and forces them to revisit, to reexamine what they thought they were reading. It forces you to look at your gut reactions and see how they change when your understanding of the circumstances changes (and what does it say about you).
Though I loved the ending of Life of Pi, I’m still not completely sure how I feel about the novel as a whole. I enjoyed it. I certainly learned a lot (if I’m ever stranded in a lifeboat or inherit a zoo, I am much better prepared than before). But I’m not sure I’ll be picking up Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, at least, not for a while.