A boy, a tiger, an ocean, and god: a review of Life of Pi

“Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

Life o PiLife of Pi* is not a difficult book. Author Yann Martel and publisher Knopf Canada released it in 2001, so it’s not even that old. But its literary merits are precious — truly a wonder of our time. This is a novel you can recommend to family and friends with full faith.

And that’s what it’s about: faith. Not necessarily religious faith although that does hold great meaning for Pi Patel, the shipwreck survivor after whom the book is named. It’s also about faith in life and where it takes you. What seem like acts of god may steer us off the course we hope and plan for ourselves, and we’re then bound to where the waters carry us. We can either succumb to hardship or make it a part of our souls and live on.

Those are the challenges that Pi, a young boy, faces in Life of Pi. He sees the beauty of life — the vision of the city of marine life swimming underneath his boat, the miracle of details that save him from total starvation and other mortal pains — but also its ugliness, like an animal suffering cruelty from another or a man reduced to primal behavior.

Early in the book, Pi seeks faith in whatever religions are available to him, and on the boat, he finds even greater meaning: a reason to believe beyond all hope. In his solitude, the world speaks its secrets: An island with life no record can describe, or an occurrence so impossible or coincidental. He sees god in the fabric of life, its ways often incomprehensible to us, like his. What’s hard to believe becomes not so hard to believe with time.

That’s not the book’s only theme. The beginning chapters teach us about animals and zoos, like the kind Pi grew up in — how animals behave, what zoos really provide them versus public perception, and so on. The answers might surprise you. They surprised me and made me wonder, too, especially when Pi shares tidbits of information about different species. The Dorado dolphinfish, for instance, change colors as they die.

Later, as Pi observes the animals trapped with him in the lifeboat, he applies the same principles. He has to survive with a tiger, a hyena, and an orangutan on board. He sees what he expects to, but he also witnesses the unimaginable — behavior and interactions between him and the animals that would never be possible except in such extreme conditions like theirs. The biggest source of mystery is the tiger: whether he tames it and what their relationship means. Pi ponders this throughout the book, but we never truly know, and neither does he. The tiger remains a mystery.

What the book seems to be pointing to, however, is how “human” animals can sometimes be, and how much we often refuse to believe them capable of the same behavior or deserving of the same respect or treatment. Pi internalizes this so much that by the end, the opposite becomes a reality as well — that animals would think the same of us. The relationship is complicated, but it never stops being beautiful and violent and wonderful and amazing. To read Life of Pi is to read a full account of pain and loss that’s difficult to absorb, but in its dual simplicity and complexity, you can better connect to and understand the universe. And that’s what Pi has long searched for.

Bottom line: A captivating story of survival and man’s place in the animal world. Even if you don’t see the movie, at least read the book.

What I liked: Poignant passages, a dash of humor, and a good deal to reflect on.

What I wasn’t expecting: What Yann Martel reveals about animals and their behavior.

Grade: A

*My best friend (also named Steph) read this book for our two-girl book club. If you’d like to read along with us every month, our next selection is Zombie Blondes.

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