Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Goodreads Description: Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
My Review: There’s something about reviewing classic and well-renowned books that strikes me as unnecessary. It’s like walking into a church, shaking the pastor and screaming in his face that God is real, that he must accept Him into his life. It’s announcing something people, especially avid readers (and I assume you are if you’ve been reading my reviews), already know. Some books, like Life of Pi, are gold. It’s because of that fact that I’m still pulling out my laptop, shifting through all the thoughts and feelings this book has left me with, and preparing yet another review for a book that hardly needs the promotion. Despite their classic status, I can’t help but want to put my feelings about a book like this on paper, if only for my own benefit.
If you don’t know the tale, Life of Pi is the story of Piscine ‘Pi’ Molitar Patel, a young Indian boy who grows up on a zoo in India and relocates with the animals to Canada with his family. While crossing the Pacific Ocean, the boat sinks, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, and a 3 year old adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Not only does Pi have to survive over two hundred days at sea in a lifeboat, but he has to do it while juggling the delicate ecosystem created between himself and the animals.
I began reading Life of Pi in the hospital after my best friend of over 10 years was in a serious car accident that nearly killed her. I admit, I grabbed the book in part because I knew of its religious connotations, and I was searching for some sort of comfort in an idea of something bigger than myself. After all, Pi Patel is a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim simultaneously, mostly due to an unbidden love of God and the word of Him, no matter what form it takes. I am not at all religious, but I am fascinated by religion. Pi’s take on Christianity, Hinduism and Islam was enlightening and light-hearted. At Pi’s first introduction to Christianity, he tries to understand the logic behind Christ’s sacrifice in such an innocent and non-judgemental way that it had me cracking up laughing. As well, I felt a connection to Hinduism’s spiritual side, and the fantastical reaches of its stories, to the calm, serene peace that Islam and prayer brought him. Despite all this religion, the book itself is not preachy nor does Pi have an obsessive devotion to God that would make non-religious readers uncomfortable. In fact, most of the religious moments were contained within the first part of the book, where the author goes into Pi’s backstory, how he came to all these religions, and his childhood growing up in a zoo. Once Pi hits the lifeboat, he spends very little time mentioning God or prayer or religion, really only mentioning it in passing detail. This I think was very vital in not having the religious tones overwhelm the rest of the story.
As for the rest of the story, what a story it was! It wasn’t the situational story of Pi in the lifeboat with these animals that made the book so great—it was all the set-up done in the first part of the book, establishing zoos and how they function, how zookeepers think, how life worked this boy from Piscine, to Pissing, to Pi. All this backstory involved such creative and interesting characters, from Mamiji, to his school teachers, to his religious teachers. Each piece added an integral part of the book for when Pi was actually on the lifeboat. Without all the buildup, the reader would have been unable to see how Pi’s thoughts worked while at sea. Whereas, by getting to know Pi Patel so intimately before the conflict sets in, the author didn’t even have to mention a lot of Pi’s direct thought process for us to understand why he did what he did. I was fascinated how intimately I was in Pi’s head—it’s something that I’ve rarely found, and never to such an intense level.
To the untrained eye, the first part of Life of Pi may appear to be one long info dump. After all, as writers, aren’t we warned away from dumping out a character’s entire history before getting to the inciting incident? There are three main reasons that I believe this isn’t an info dump, and why it amounted to the book’s success. For one, the tension builds throughout the first part, in the solid teasing of the sinking of the boat, and the continual hinting of Richard Parker. For at this stage, we have no idea who Richard Parker is, whether he’s actually a person or what. He is a ghostly figure that “haunts” Pi Patel, long after the story has ended. And though the mentions of the lifeboat are what propel us forward (as that is the story the reader believes they’ve come for), the mystery of Richard Parker, who he is, and why he haunts Pi, is what keeps the reader intrigued and engaged. If this book had one of these tension tricks but not the other, I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful.
The second reason to the backstory’s successes lies directly in the title. The book is the Life of Pi, and we see as soon as we get to the portion of the lifeboat, every little detail, right down to the nickname “Pissing Patel,” helps to keep him alive on the boat. He applies all these incidents in his life and what he’s learned from his parents and mentors, and it keeps him alive. The key to his survival isn’t the tiger or his wits or even dumb luck—it was the circumstances of his life that made him able to live so long. And this becomes apparent long before the book is over, meaning that the reader isn’t frustrated by all this information that’s coming to them that would appear superfluous. Because the author draws the reader’s attention back to the main conflict through little “tension teasers,” it helps to draw the reader’s quiet realization that all these rich stories are coming together and interwoven into the main conflict. Readers hate feeling like they’re wasting their time reading something that doesn’t matter to the main story, but the author kept Pi’s backstory interesting while subtly drawing back to the main issue, as to reassure readers that they hadn’t run off together on a tangent.
And finally, the true mark of infodumping is Telling, not Showing. With Pi’s backstory, the author took us on a firsthand experience, and though there was a lot to explain, he still showed us the richness of the zoo, what classes felt like, and strong memories that stick out for one reason or another. Many authors, when trying to convey as much information as possible, jump to telling, which is why their “infodumps” get scratched out in editing. Telling is boring to read. But with every chapter of Pi’s childhood, I couldn’t wait to see where we would go next, central conflict be damned.
Really, I believe this book is essential for writers. If the religious elements make you shy away, don’t fret. This book is an intellectual look at religion and faith, not one that demands your audience in church pews. The symbolism in this story is really what gets me, time and time again. For that reason alone I know it will stick with me, and will definitely be a book I can’t help but reread, time and time again.
TL;DR: All in all, 5/5 stars. Life of Pi is such an incredibly well-written tale that is so magical and whimsical while still remaining completely realistic. You won’t be disappointed.