Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I always feel a bit apprehensive when reading a book like Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi which has been read by so many people and seems to divide opinion so much. Would I love it or would I hate it? I was actually expecting to hate it, since I did try to read it a few years ago and gave up after a couple of chapters. After deciding to give the book a second chance and making it to the end this time, I was surprised to find that I had the exact opposite reaction – I loved it and was completely captivated by it from start to finish. Now I’m annoyed with myself for waiting so long before giving it another try!

Pi Patel’s father runs the Pondicherry Zoo, so Pi has grown up surrounded by animals. However, this still doesn’t prepare him for what happens when he and his family decide to emigrate to Canada, taking several of their animals with them to be traded to other zoos. When they are shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi finds himself trapped in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan – and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

I remember that when I first tried to read Life of Pi I struggled to get through the opening chapters, but this time I found them much more interesting. Not much actually happens in this early section of the book, but the scene is set for the rest of the story. We learn a lot about animals and how they are treated in zoos. We also see how Pi explores various religions and the benefits of each, before deciding to be a Christian, Muslim and Hindu all at the same time. But it wasn’t until the shipwreck scene and Pi’s subsequent discovery of the tiger sharing his lifeboat that I really became absorbed in the story. The account of Pi’s battle for survival and his relationship with Richard Parker makes for fascinating and compelling reading. It’s hard to believe that a story which takes place mainly within the confined space of a small lifeboat can be so enthralling!

Which brings me to the final section of the book. At first I hated the way the book ended and I did feel cheated – I expect a lot of readers have felt the same way, which will be one reason for the love/hate divide – but then I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and how clever it was. I have rarely come across a book with such a thought-provoking and ambiguous ending. I’m so glad I decided to give Life of Pi a second chance, as after my first attempt at reading it I had thought it just wasn’t for me.

Have you ever been surprised by a book after giving it another chance?

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4 responses

  1. Most recently, it happened with a Georgette Heyer novel. The first time I read A Civil Contract, I disliked it so much that I gave the book away immediately. I found it drab and depressing, and I couldn’t imagine ever reading it again. I belong to a Heyer reading group, and it came up for discussion again this year. For some reason, the comments caught my attention, and led to my getting another copy, and discovering that this time I liked the book much, much better. Though it’s more serious than some of her Regency novels, it’s still a great story with sympathetic characters and Heyer’s trademark humor. So this copy stays on my shelves.

    1. I think reading with a group can sometimes help you to appreciate aspects of a book that you wouldn’t pick up on if you read it on your own. I love Georgette Heyer but haven’t tried A Civil Contract yet – when I get round to reading it I’ll bear in mind that it’s more serious than some of her others.

  2. Okay, I am a hater… of Life of Pi! I read it back when it won the Booker and it has remained in my memory as a book of irritation for me. It’s definitely a tour de force and supremely clever, but I couldn’t reconcile myself to the ending. My 14-year-old niece just had to read it for school and loved it (as most people I know do) so I might have to re-read it at some point just to examine my negative feelings toward it.

    1. I can see that the ending would bother a lot of people. It wasn’t what I was expecting to happen at all, but I thought it was very clever.

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