One of the things I had been kind of expecting during this project was that people would recommend books I know I should have read: but haven’t. Books which various friends, reviewers and unknown others have waxed lyrical about: “an un-missable classic” or “the next big thing”. Now one of the reasons I don’t read these books is that this repeated praise begets in me a perverse sense of trepidation. How can a book be so good, so extraordinary that everyone, everywhere demands I read it? How can they set my expectations so high, just setting me up for the inevitable crash? Sometimes I have fallen for this trap, and usually I am disappointed. Because, when you are expecting something to be “the best thing ever”, well, it usually isn’t. But the problem is that occasionally, it pretty much is (see earlier blog on Hilary Mantel) which keeps you hoping on. Not dissimilar to first dates, some may surmise.
For me, Life of Pi was one of those books. Plus, it was a book about animals. And well, I just don’t like those. Simple as that.
So, because I am perverse, I started out this prize winning, now-a-motion-picture book with pretty low expectations. But I did want to see what all the fuss was about.
At the start, I just found this book confusing. Because, you see, I had heard a lot about it. And I knew it was about a boy, at sea, with a tiger (even the cover tells you that much). And yet, for the first third of the novel, there is no sea and few references to tigers. It was mostly about religion and zoos. Now, having read the whole book I can see that the beginning sets you up for the end, covering as it does, issue of freedom (both religious and animal), reality and illusion and the space inbetween.
“I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”
“…atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and they leap.”
“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”
For me, the middle of the novel – the main bit, with the boat and the tiger – was something of a necessary hiatus. At times I found it confusing but most frequently just a little boring and repetitive: whistle, turtle, storm. With the occasional orang-utan, Frenchman and man-eating island thrown in (straying into the realms of The Odyssey there…)
It was the beginning and it’s relationship with the end that struck me. I almost felt that the author made the middle feel a little pointless to mark this juxtaposition more starkly.
As the novel moves toward the end, it revisits the themes of the start, in a way I find strangely appealing. I think the particular appeal of this is in secondary school English literature training – I find myself pull together the themes and feel I could answer an unasked exam question on the subject. In some ways, this novel is the place where postmodernism meets religion. It emphasizes that there is no absolute truth and that we all provide narrative to tackle life’s complexities and most frequently our own fears. As Pi explains, doubt opens the door to fear – a door which reason can never quite close. Although it doesn’t cover any new ground, it discusses tired themes in a new way. I liked picking apart these themes as I went – discovering new links in each chapter.
However, right at the end of the book is the first time Pi draws the blatant parallels between belief and his tale, which have been slowly developing throughout the novel. He raises issues of fact and fiction and confirmation bias in all our lives. At that point the novel loses something: I don’t think these things should have to be spelled out. If we can’t discern the key themes and parallels in the narrative then it is not sufficiently well-written. It feels patronising to tell the reader what they should have learned. Having done most of the hard work yourself, to be told the answer at the end leaves you with a somewhat disheartened feeling.
It would be remiss of me not to at least mention in passing that this book has a twist. And I am not always the biggest fan of those (see various earlier blogs). But I won’t spend much time on it. nor will I give it away. Because, though this twist is in some ways integral to the whole narrative, in some ways it isn’t the point at all, at least for me. For me, what makes this book interesting is nothing to do with a boy, a tiger and lifeboat….