Book Review by Heidi Simmons
Life of Pi
By Yann Martel
If you have seen the film Life of Pi and thought it was wonderful, the book may appeal to you as well. The movie adaptation is brilliant and captures the beauty, poetry and magic of the novel. But if you want more than the 3D waves to wash over you, Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Harcourt, 326) is a sensory read that takes you to another world and gives you something to contemplate.
The Life of Pi is the story of an adolescent boy who grows up in Pondicherry, India. Part of the French territory before India’s independence, it is a beautiful seaside community known as India’s French Riviera. His family owns a zoo and Piscine Molitor Patel is a sensitive child, loves animals and is curious about God. He adopts Hinduism, Islam and Christianity as his religions, though his father insists it’s impossible to live with more than one.
Fed up with teasing by classmate, “Piscine are you pissing?” — he becomes known as Pi and expresses his name in the form of the mathematical equation resulting in an irrational number.
Pi’s father decides to move to North America and sell the animals there for a better price. Heading to their new life, the family and animals are aboard a Japanese cargo ship when a storm sinks the vessel. Pi is tossed into a lifeboat and cast away where he soon discovers he is not alone. There is a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker on board.
For a while the animals are seasick but soon Pi is left to survive with the tiger Richard Parker. He struggles to dominate, tame and relate to his beast of a companion. The two unlikely castaways drift for 227 days surviving on fish and rainwater. They come across another survivor and a floating island. Pi appeals to the Hindu god Vishnu, the love of Christ and the God of Islam but finds the only tangible help is in the survival handbook. His faith is tested but is ultimately made stronger by his experience.
When Pi finally comes ashore and is recovering in the hospital, Japanese investigators interview him. They want to know what happened on the ship and how he managed to survive the experience. To our surprise, Pi tells another version of the same events. You can read this for yourself or see it in the movie, it is basically the same. But this twist makes the reader reconsider the “story” and its meaning.
The novel carries an engaging and richly layered philosophical and religious debate throughout its pages. At its heart, the story is centered on the inward struggle to validate our faith as we are buffeted by the seemingly impossible challenges of life.
At the start of the adventure, a character is told, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” The Life of Pi may be allegory, fable or magical realism, but it is also a profound look at the nature and power of story itself. And how our narratives of belief can shape our perspectives and perhaps save us.