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Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Member Name: SWSt
Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Advantages: Fantastic storytelling, great use of language, funny and poignant, wide auduence appeal
Disadvantages: Stylistically a little strange, runs out of steam a little
The Life of Pi is one of those books which it's very difficult to write a review on, for all sorts of reasons. Say too little about the plot and it sounds dull; say too much, and it all sounds a little stupid and unlikely. There are certain words that sum it up in easy sound bites: "whimsical", "charming" and "quirky" are just three, but these adjectives only make sense once you've read the book. Indeed, had someone said them to me before I read it, that may have put me off it.
The Life of Pi tells the story of Piscene Patel, an Indian boy whose family (and their zoo) makes a journey from India to Canada to start a new life. On the way, the ship sinks and Pi, the sole human survivor, finds himself shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean, with only a Royal Bengal Tiger to keep him company
As I've already said, it's hard to categorise Life of Pi and this is one of the things which makes it such a strong book. It's a thought-provoking, interesting, deep, realistic, poignant, fantastical book with a strong vein of both innocent and black humour running through it. See what I mean? Try and pigeonhole if you like, but Life of Pi will defy you. This is its secret weapon. Because it doesn't fit neatly into any single genre, it can be enjoyed by anyone who just likes a good book. You don't have to be a fan of a particular genre or be familiar with the conventions of a particular literary style: you just have to be able to appreciate a well-told tale.
Actually, very little happens in the Life of Pi - after all, how much adventure can you have stranded in a small lifeboat in the middle of the ocean? Despite this, Pi never comes across as boring. There's a grim fascination derived from reading his various attempts to survive both his castaway predicament and the fact he has a tiger for a passenger. The story is narrated through Pi himself, so you really feel you are getting first hand testament and accessing his inner thoughts. Pi proves to be an amicable and likeable companion, with a wonderful turn of phrase that will have you laughing out loud at times. Yet, he is also more than capable of conveying the grimmer, darker aspects of his voyage to give the book a realistic edge.
The Life of Pi is massively readable and well-written, not just in terms of the pacing and overall tone, but in terms of its sentence structure and wording. Normally with books, I simply read them through, anxious to find out how things turn out. With Pi, there were several occasions when I actively chose to go back and re-read a sentence or paragraph, because the use of language and the sentence structure was so clever, so amusing, I wanted to savour them. Writer Yann Martel clearly has an excellent grasp of language and employs it to maximum effect.
Importantly, though, this use of language never becomes so "clever-clever" that it overshadows the story. The tale is always paramount and the language used a key part of telling it, not a way of showing off for the author. The language and the story complement each other perfectly. It perfectly conveys the bitter-sweet voyage of Pi and, through the author's excellent use of language, we share both his moments of incredible joy and his times of absolute despair. This gives the book a balanced, nuanced and a surprising emotional depth which is so often lacking in modern books
What faults there are, are fairly minor ones. Around the three-quarter time mark, the author starts to struggle to maintain the early interest and momentum. This is entirely understandable - there is a limit to what you can do with a boat in the middle of the sea. A couple of plot elements start to become a little strained and a little more incredulous - as if they were thrown in to provide some variety from the "monotony" of sea life. Even so, these elements are never so ridiculous that they spoil the book. They might clash slightly with what has gone before, but they are certainly well within the realms of reality.
As if recognising that he has wrung as much out of the plot as he can, Martel ends the book quite abruptly. From being in the middle of nowhere, the boat suddenly hits dry land (this is not a plot spoiler - you are told from that start that Pi survives). After such a long voyage, this initially feels a little unsatisfactory. Fear not. Martel brings it all back together again with a superb coda which is suitably ambiguous and makes you think again about everything you have just read. All the way through the book, I wondered how it was going to end - after all, a "happily ever after" would hardly suffice after the deprivations we have suffered with Pi. Thankfully, though, Martel pulls a rabbit out of the hat and ends with an excellent "twist" that more than satisfies.
The only other slight criticism is Martel's mathematically precise determination to write the book using exactly 100 chapters. Since this is a slightly arbitrary decision, it leaves the book looking a little strange and lop-sided at times: Some chapters are literally a single line of text, whilst others go on for 30 pages or more. This makes it a slightly tricky book to read on the train or the bus, as you're never quite sure where the next natural break is going to come.
Overall, though, Life of Pi is a hugely readable and entertaining book. It's a testament to the power of the imagination - of both the author and his character - that such a strange, compelling, fascinating story is spun out from so little. Well written from both a plot and a stylistic point of view, it will appeal to a wide audience, including many people who would not normally consider this "their type of book." Give it a go. You never know, you might even like it!
Life of Pi
ISBN: 1 84195 392 X
© Copyright SWSt 2009
Available new from Amazon for £4.99 or used from 1p.
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