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Life of Pi

by Yann Martel

It’s impossible to read Yann Martel’s audacious, exhilarating, frustrating second novel without wondering what the hell happened. The premise of Life of Pi vibrates with promise. A family living in a small corner of India decides to resettle in Winnipeg in 1977. The family ran a small municipal zoo, and they opt to travel to North America on the same ship that carries a number of the animals that are relocating to zoos in the U.S. The ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific, and the lone human survivor, young Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel, finds himself in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and, most significantly, an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The book’s middle section, which describes the 227 days Pi and Richard Parker spend aboard the lifeboat, might be the most gripping 200 pages in recent Canadian fiction. It also stands up against some of Martel’s more obvious influences: Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the novels of H.G. Wells, certain stretches of Moby Dick. The long scene in which Pi and Richard Parker encounter a massive, floating, carnivorous island rivals the best inventions of Wells. What’s more astonishing is that the reader never doubts the plausibility of Martel’s creation.

Most astonishing, however, is that Martel felt he needed to justify this story with a superfluous narrative framework. The novel’s long first section has a jumbled, halting pace. Pi’s long dissertation on the fundamental conservatism of wild animals – they much prefer order and stasis to freedom and change, he insists – is very funny, as well as crucial to understanding his later survival, but the side-theme of Pi’s triple conversion to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam feels stitched in from another story. The conceit of the narrative being told by the “real” Pi Patel to a Yann Martel-ish writer is a fussy anachronism, while the third section is an unsubtle epilogue, full of repetition and rough tugging at the book’s already amply demonstrated themes.

Yann Martel has written a wonderful second novel, but one that is marooned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of Life of Pi.