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Man Booker Prize winner 2002
I first saw this book in Waterstone's, and flicked through it, thinking it was about mathematics, after the style of Fermat's Last Theorem, which is a great character-driven story interwoven with complex trigonometry. But no, this was the unexciting-sounding tale of a shipwrecked boy accompanied only by animals, set in a lifeboat. Oh dear, I thought, talking creatures and an uninspiring context.
Having been lent a copy of the novel, I settled down to try to wrestle with it, anticipating (with little excitement) either a lightweight fairytale or one of those impenetrable literary tours-de-force so beloved of Booker Prize judges.
So far that's four expectations of the one novel… Perhaps I'd better just get on with the review of what it's really like. A momentary glance at the foot of this column will reveal my positive opinion.
The main thrust of the narrative is the moving and entertaining story of an Indian teenage boy named Pi, whose family owns a zoo; he argues eloquently the value to the animals of being provided with board and lodging, denying the PC attitude which overstates the torture of imprisonment.
The family is forced by economics to transfer the zoo to a new location, but while in transit, the cargo boat capsizes, leaving young Pi alone in a lifeboat accompanied by an orang-utan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena and a 450lb Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, for reasons which seem quite sensible at the time.
From that point until the brief final part, the book disobeys one of the general rules of novel-writing: 140 pages of description without any dialogue (the animals don't talk, of course), a brief chat in strange circumstances and then 30 more pages without a speechmark. But it's completely compelling, thanks to Martell's brilliance as a storyteller. The boy survives the extended drifting, discovering desalination, delicacies and big cat husbandry as he goes along. Or does he?
The narrative is vivid and sensuous, but unreliable.Yet it's a satisfying, taut read that communicates fear and despair, leaving the reader concerned for the character, and involved in the potential danger atop every wave and below most of them as well. And the denouement is splendidly confusing and opaque, releasing some of the tension of all that suspended disbelief.
The boy has a supermarket approach to his religion, deciding to hedge his bets three ways, rather than settling on any particular faith, which makes for some bizarre and entertaining prayers.
A well-written book, deserving of praise and more careful reading than it demands; the constantly precarious, feeble grip Pi has on life makes you turn the pages quickly - but silently, in case the tiger hears you…