First Published: 2002
Pages: 319 (Paperback)
After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan . . . and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger.
The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary works of fiction in recent years.
‘LITTLE INDIAN BOY GOES ON WEIRD BOAT RIDE WITH MEAN CAT.’ – so reads the entirety one of the top rated reviews of this book on goodreads and, to be honest, it’s hard to think of a way to expand on that. This one of those books I have a hard time saying much about – it’s a good book, there’s lots to like about it, and I can see why it’s such a popular and well-loved novel but, for me, it just didn’t do much but fill a bit of time. It felt a bit like a beach read – one of the books my mum used to hand to me once I’d exhausted all my own stuff while we were on family holidays – a book that, yes, I quite enjoyed but was reading more because it was there than because I was particularly enthralled by it. In fact, and this is something that doesn’t happen often, I prefered the film.
The novel tells the story of Pi Patel, a religious Indian teenager, who finds himself stranded at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. And I would probably have liked the book a lot more had it got that point a lot sooner. The first portion of the book instead is devoted to Pi’s childhood as the son of a zookeeper (interesting), his fascination with religion (also interesting) but is frequently interrupted by the ‘author’ (it’s one of those fake ‘real stories’) breaking in to describe his impressions of older Pi, the house older Pi now lives in, or the food older Pi now cooks, or the family older Pi now has. And maybe this would be more interesting if it didn’t come across so clunkily and if it wasn’t written in italics or in the present tense. People who insist write in the present tense should all be put on lifeboats with a tiger and sent out to sea. People who write in first person, present tense should be put on a lifeboat with two tigers.
And while I found younger Pi’s interest and practice of various religions interesting (one of the highlights of this portion of the book is where his priest, his imam, and his pandit all run into him at the park and realise he has been practicing other religions behind their backs), I found older Pi judgemental, full of himself, and annoying. ‘[Agnostics] get stuck in my craw‘, ‘To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to chosing immobility as a means of transportation’. Fuck off. Because someone does not know whether a god exists or not does not mean they are chosing ‘doubt as a philosophy of life‘ , it just means that they don’t know (and let’s be honest nobody does). Pi is one of those irritating people who doesn’t seem to understand that simply not being interested in whether god exists (as opposed to being either religious or vehemently atheist) is not only perfectly possible but perfectly valid. And then there’s his ‘I was such a great student I would have won all sorts of awards for my brilliance but my department didn’t offer awards so I didn’t’ stuff. Blech.
But once the story moved onto the lifeboat the book improved vastly. The author stopped butting in and the focus moved back to young Pi and onto how he survived 200+ days stranded out at sea with a tiger. Now I freely admit I’m a sucker for castaway and survival stories. If someone is putting together a water purification system using nothing more than a bit of string and a ballpoint pen (or something equally ridiculous) I’m happy. So although fishing bores and disgusts me in just about equal measure in real life, I enjoyed reading about Pi’s attempts to catch fish, his descriptions on how best to de-shell a live turtle, how to train a Bengal tiger with a plastic whistle, and the way to build a raft using lifevests and a couple of oars.
For as long as the Robinson Crusoe type stuff’s going on I was pretty happy, that portion of the book was really damned good in fact. But then, much like Stig of the Dump ruins the ‘making a livable house for a caveman out of rubbish’ magic by throwing in real magic and time travel, Life of Pi ruins the ‘boy and his tiger adrift at sea’ magic by throwing in a random encounter better suited to Gulliver’s Travels or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Yeah, I know, it’s meant to be “symbolic”, to remind the reader that Pi is potentially a totally unreliable narrator, and to make me ‘believe in god’ but it just felt…bleh. Maybe if there had been more of it, if the story had got progressively weirder rather than just these couple of random things shoved in right at the end of an otherwise ‘realistic’ account I could have bought into and enjoyed it a bit more. As it was I thought they were very interesting ideas – that belonged in a whole different book.
Yes, this is a very shallow reading of the book that pretty much ignores the symbolism and religious messages running through it. But there’s plenty of reviews that go into that and the reason I don’t is simply because I didn’t find the symbolism and religious themes of faith and belief in this book interesting or thought provoking enough to go into. It’s a book that’s been sold as a lot ‘deeper’ than it really is – a beach read being promoted as a lifechanger. Does believing the magic tiger story mean you believe in god? or does it mean you’d rather believe in pretty lies than face the truth? Which story is true? Which would you rather believe? I can definitely see the attraction of this book and I can see why so many people do love it. But I can’t be the only person who ultimately doesn’t care, can I? They’re both made up stories. Oh wait, there I am with my ‘philosophy of doubt‘ again.
An ok book. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would after I got over the first few chapters and there will be bits that will stick with me, particularly from the middle section, but it’s not a book I can love. It reads like something my mum would lend me (in fact this copy is actually hers). And although I like my mum’s taste in books, really, I do, it’s not mine.