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Spotlight on Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I first read Life of Pi by Yann Martel in late 2001, and this lyrical story stole my heart.

Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.

Growing up in Pondicherry, India, Piscine Molitor Patel – known as Pi – has a rich life. Bookish by nature, young Pi acquires a broad knowledge of not only the great religious texts but of all literature, and has a great curiosity about how the world works. His family runs the local zoo, and he spends many of his days among goats, hippos, swans, and bears, developing his own theories about the nature of animals and how human nature conforms to it. Pi’s family life is quite happy, even though his brother picks on him and his parents aren’t quite sure how to accept his decision to simultaneously embrace and practise three religions – Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.

But despite the lush and nurturing variety of Pi’s world, there are broad political changes afoot in India, and when Pi is sixteen, his parents decide that the family needs to escape to a better life. Choosing to move to Canada, they close the zoo, pack their belongings, and board a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum. Travelling with them are many of their animals, bound for zoos in North America. However, they have only just begun their journey when the ship sinks, taking the dreams of the Patel family down with it. Only Pi survives, cast adrift in a lifeboat with the unlikeliest oftravelling companions: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Thus begins Pi Patel’s epic, 227-day voyage across the Pacific, and the powerful story of faith and survival at the heart of Life of Pi. Worn and scared, oscillating between hope and despair, Pi is witness to the playing out of the food chain, quite aware of his new position within it. When only the tiger is left of the seafaring menagerie, Pi realizes that his survival depends on his ability to assert his own will, and sets upon a grand and ordered scheme to keep from being Richard Parker’s next meal.

As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” And for Martel, the greatest imaginative overlay is religion. “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material – any greater pattern of meaning.” In Life of Pi, the question of stories, and of what stories to believe, is front and center from the beginning, when the author tells us how he was led to Pi Patel and to this novel: in an Indian coffee house, a gentleman told him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And as this novel comes to its brilliant conclusion, Pi shows us that the story with the imaginative overlay is also the story that contains the most truth.

pi

 

Martel illustrates just how powerful stories can be and how they can save our lives.  Life of Pi is now a movie and is nominated for Best Picture in Sunday’s Academy Awards.

If you’ve never read Life of Pi, this is a great week to begin.  Oh, how I envy you!  How much do I love this book?  Well, I own a first edition, first printing signed, dated, and lined copy: “I was named after a swimming pool.”  I also own a first edition, first printing copy of the Canadian edition and an ARC.  The ARC is noteworthy because the tiger’s name is misprinted as Robert Parker.

Life of Pi is my favorite book of all-time.  If you’ve never read it, I urge you to open your heart and your mind to this stunning, magical story.

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Saving Grace

Saving Grace

 The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Reagan Arthur Books; 288 pages; $24.99).

The sea can be unforgiving, mysterious, dangerous, and even brutal.  The ocean can cool and renew us, yet it also has the power to kill.  The water may look inviting, but that same liquid can be deceiving.  Curiously, the sea can be a metaphor for life.  Sometimes it’s sink or swim.  Sometimes we must dogpaddle to stay afloat.  Sometimes we are in danger of going under.

 

Sometimes we must make horrible choices in order to survive.  Such is the case in Charlotte Rogan’s gripping debut The Lifeboat.  The phrase “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” never rang truer.  Rogan’s main character, Grace Winter, despite her faults, is one of the strongest female characters I have encountered in a long time.

 

Grace manages to live through an excruciating ordeal, one in which many die.  The Lifeboat is chilling as Grace and others must struggle and sacrifice in order to survive.

When Rogan introduces us to Grace, she is widow on trial, along with two other women, for murder.  Her lawyers urge Grace to write an account of what occurred.  She reluctantly agrees and begins a diary.  Her narrative is the basis for Rogan’s story.

 

While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1914, there is an explosion on board the Empress Alexandra.  People shove others out of the way to get on lifeboats.  Grace’s new husband, Henry, forces her onto Lifeboat 14, but he does not follow.   Rogan draws eerily similar comparisons to Titanic, yet this is no love story.  Far from it.

 

Grace recalls, “There were bodies floating in the water, too, and living people clung to the wreckage….”  A toddler reaches out to her, but neither Grace nor any of the others save the child.  This is the first instance where the reader notices how cold and calculating Grace really is.  There is a detachment to her.  Perhaps it is her lack of emotion that helps her survive.

 

Many people are alive in the water.  Three swimmers approach the boat.  On the orders of an officer from the ship, Mr. Hardie, the oarsmen beat the men to death with the oars.  It is truly every man for himself.  The simple, hard fact is that “we could not save everybody and save ourselves.”

 

Mr. Hardie emerges as leader.  This makes sense given he knows the water.  Grace has confidence in his abilities.  In her eyes, Mr. Hardie “knew about this world of water” and “spoke its language.”  The less she understands his “rough seaman’s voice,” “the greater the possibility” that the sea understands him.  Out of necessity, Mr. Hardie makes some tough decisions.  Grace, though, perseveres in her support for him, or at least at first.

 

Because the boat is taking on water, it, in all likelihood, will sink.  The lifeboat supposedly has a capacity of 39 people and holds 38.  In actuality, the lifeboat is capable of holding much less than 39 people.

 

The lifeboat is overcrowded, a fact that is obvious to everyone.  Mr. Hardie asks for volunteers.  Several men and women jump out and into the sea to their deaths.  Soon, Mr. Hardie’s actions are questioned, especially by two women, Mrs. Grant and Hannah.  Mrs. Grant is appalled when Mr. Hardie does not turn back for the child.  She calls him a brute.  Just like that, Grace explains, “Mrs. Grant was branded a humanitarian and Hardie a fiend.”

 

A power struggle unfolds as food and water, necessities for survival, are hard to come by.  Grace’s allegiance to Mr. Hardie teeters.  It becomes obvious that she will support whoever suits her needs best.  She will cheer whoever has the advantage.  Clearly, Grace is interested only in saving herself.

 

The situation on the lifeboat grows bleaker.  At one point, a flock of birds falls dead into the lifeboat.  Both men and women eat the birds and gnaw the bones until they are bare of meat.  Blood runs down their chins.  Such a thing is implausible to me.  I wonder if this might be a veiled reference to cannibalism.  Perhaps the reality of the situation is such that Grace is unwilling and unable to call it what it truly is.

 

You just cannot trust Grace; she is definitely an unreliable narrator.  She often tells half-truths and even lies.  “It’s my experience that we can come up with five reasons why something happened, and the truth will always be the sixth,” she confides.  If this is part of her nature or if it is a result of the tragedy, Rogan chooses not to reveal.  It is through the eyes of the other survivors that Grace comes across as callous and manipulative.  Her cold and calculating nature is nothing new, however, as Rogan reveals.  Grace used these same tactics to lure her husband from another woman.  If you guess he came from money, you are correct.

Rogan plays with Grace’s memory and history in this novel.  When the others discount a memory on the stand, she emphatically denies what they say.  Grace’s memory and history are at odds.  Grace also retreats into herself on the lifeboat.  She withdraws into her own mind to what she calls the “Winter Palace.”  Her retreat may partly explain why she has no recollection of certain events.  Then again, maybe it is her plan all along.  One thing is certain, though: over time, the situation on the lifeboat grows more tenuous and more perilous.

 

The power struggle between Mr. Hardie and Mrs. Grant and Hannah comes to a head.  Grace plays a major role in this battle, which is the reason she is on trial.  Rogan writes this with suspense.

 

It is interesting that three women are on trial.  If circumstances had been different, I do not feel Mr. Hardie would be accused of murder.  It is as if, in 1914 at least, a woman’s place was to create, sustain, and nurture life.  Not take it.  People expect a man to fight, even defend himself if the scenario demands.  Why shouldn’t the same be true for a woman?

 

A lifeboat takes on ironic meanings in Rogan’s novel.  Lifeboats are lifesaving vessels.  They are places of refuge and salvation.  In this book, though, the lifeboat takes on a whole different sense.  It becomes a deathtrap.

 

I recommend The Lifeboat to anyone who is fascinated with Titanic.  I also would suggest the novel for those who enjoy Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  I do want to warn you that there is no romance, no magic here.  The Lifeboat is sometimes bloody, sometimes chilling, and always shocking.  It will literally give you goosebumps.

 

More than anything, Grace Winter is a survivor, and you must respect her for having the will to save herself.  Grace never gives up.  Whether you are at sea or navigating the shark-infested waters of life, Grace can teach us all something.  Sometimes we all have to struggle in order to get through this life.

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