Publishers often claim that a book will ‘change your life’. Canongate have higher aspirations for Yann Martel’s second novel. It will, they claim, make you believe in God. Hyperbole aside, this is an astonishingly original novel. The eponymous Pi is a 16-year-old boy whose father runs a zoo in Pondicherry, India. His pondering on the behaviour of the animals leads him to develop a strong religious zeal and he decides to become a practising Muslim, Hindu and Christian – greatly disconcerting the authorities of these faiths.
Following political instability, Pi’s father decides to sell the zoo and emigrate to Canada. The ship carrying the family and the animals sinks in mid-Pacific and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a female orang-utan, a hyena, a zebra and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Survival logic operates remorselessly and soon only Richard Parker and Pi are left. In order to survive Pi has to become a ‘high seas animal trainer’.
Together boy and tiger embark on an epic voyage of suffering and discovery as they drift for months on the open ocean. To sustain such a slender and fanciful plot is trick enough but this mesmeric, dreamlike novel does much more, immersing the reader in a dazzlingly inventive narrative and even springing a startling twist in the final pages which sheds new light on the whole tale. This wonderful book did not make me believe in God but it did reinforce my faith in the considerable redemptive powers of fiction.Peter Whittaker