Warning: Spoilers for the book and movie!
Just when I thought the backlog of books I collected last year was almost done, I found something on clearance in Barnes and Noble that I wanted to add to it. I didn’t want to read it at the moment, but for five bucks I Thought I may as well grab it and visit it later. God. What a first world problem.
And it was Life of Pi, no less. Waaaah! I found a book I wanted for five dollars and now adding another book to my stack of things I want to read has made it bigger! You know, never mind that this book was about a starving boy trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger for nearly eight months — my problem was clearly bigger.
Luckily, it didn’t stay on that shelf for too long and now it’s read. You can all rest easy. Well, not really. I found more books at a flea market and someone lent me even more. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Let’s just get on with this, already.
So for those that didn’t see the movie a few years ago or remember the promotions for it (or the comparison to my life two paragraphs ago), Life of Pi is about a boy named Pi trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger (and a handful of other animals that quickly kill each other). And… that’s kind of it. I don’t mean to make the book sound so simple, but the basic premise of the book is kind of it.
The first hundred or so pages documents the events leading up to Pi’s shipwrecked status. They include a lot of biographical background information about Pi’s childhood, like classmates teasing him because his full name “Piscine” sounds like “pissing,” thus leading Pi to reinvent a new nickname for himself; life growing up in a hotel’s zoo, where his family worked; his spiritual life as a Hindu, and his desire to also practice Christianity and Islam alongside his original faith; and of course, his father’s decision to sell the zoo and move his family overseas to Canada, where they’ll be taking some of the animals, which results in Pi becoming shipwrecked.
Initially I was a little impatient going through that part. I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry to get to the shipwreck. I think my line of thinking was that these were interesting insights into his life, but they wouldn’t mean much in the long run considering survival would play a much bigger role in the book and these early parts felt more like padding then anything else.
But something the book captured better than the film was Pi’s narration. Despite taking place in one setting with only one other, non-speaking character for the majority of the book, Life of Pi remained pretty interesting in its entirety. In addition to the words being arranged and flowing wonderfully with each other, all the previous aspects of Pi’s life were woven into his daily struggles of survival. Especially his faith — faith and hope play a large part of Pi’s life and it’s not in an overbearing, obnoxious way. Which is funny, because one of the earliest moments in this novel says something like, “this is a story that will make you believe in God.” Which is, in my opinion, a pretty tall, if not pretentious statement to make. But luckily I never felt Life of Pi was trying to push religion on me, but just letting us see religion’s role in Pi’s life, which I very much appreciate.
Life of Pi can also get pretty violent. Despite being a story that inspires strength in the face of adversity, some of the descriptions regarding catching sea life for food and preparing them to eat can get pretty graphic. There’s also a part early in the book where Pi’s father takes him around the zoo and describes how each particular animal can kill someone in a very specific way that’s just plain traumatic for a father to explain to his child. These parts are usually few and far between, but I’ve seen some people ask if this is an appropriate book to read to their kids, so for them I’ll just say it’s okay at most parts but if they’re squeamish, pass on it.
Pi eventually finds his way to shore — twice, actually, but the first time doesn’t end well — and he and the tiger part ways. It’s actually pretty sad; Pi points out how the tiger just leaves the boat and runs into the jungle without looking back, and he was hoping the tiger would turn back to look at him one last time as a form of closure.
Pi’s brought to a hospital to recover, which is where the last section of the book takes place. Two businessmen representing the company of the sunken ship visit, wanting to know if Pi could fill them in on why the ship sank. Pi then tells him his story, which the men don’t believe. No matter how much Pi insists on his tale being truthful, they won’t believe it. So Pi tells them a different story where the animals are his mother and two other people from the ship. The way the animals kill each other are parallel to how the people murder each other in the new story. The men notice this similarity and are eventually satisfied. Before they go, Pi asks which story they prefer, and they tell him the one with the tiger.
This is an interesting scene because for the first time, we get to see a much darker side of Pi. He ends up being the tiger, and with that information in mind we get to see a whole new aspect of the story — facing the beast within yourself. It might be worth reading the entire book again to see if there are any details one might miss if they didn’t know Pi and the tiger were the same.
Ultimately, though, the book kind of words the ending in a way that leaves interpretation up to the reader. In my opinion, from a literary perspective, everything points towards Pi’s story involving humans as the real tale. But the book wants to leave either scenario entirely possible.
Which at first really annoyed me, but then I was thinking. What if leaving the truth up to the reader is a kind of message in itself? Like, what if people that don’t want to handle horrible truths and shield themselves away from it would want to choose the story with animals, and the people that choose to face reality and live with the darkness choose the one with humans? If that’s the case, the ending just saved itself for me.
I suppose while I’m talking about the book, I should mention the movie. I rewatched it literally thirty minutes after finishing the book, and while I still liked it, I didn’t think it was as good as I remembered. As I mentioned earlier, the narration isn’t captured as well in the movie, and because that was my favorite part of the book I couldn’t help but be disappointed. There’s also a lot of computer-generated effects, which can’t really be helped in a movie like this but they did distract me from time to time, even though they look beautiful. Other than that, it stayed pretty faithful to the book and is still worth watching.
I really enjoyed Life of Pi, but I can’t recommend it for everyone. Despite my praises, there’s the huge potential issue of the majority of the book taking place in one small location with only two characters, one of which being an animal. And I can see that bothering some people. I think the narration more than makes up for it, but that’s just me.
I hope you enjoy the book and movie if you decide to check them out, and I hope you’re having a great week! 🙂
Info for my edition of Life of Pi:
- Published 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Paperback, 416 pages
- ISBN 978-0-544-10375-7