Life of Pi is one of the few Page Turners books that I have actually completed after our group discussion (which was nearly a month ago). Normally, if I haven't finished a book before the meeting, I abandon it half-read, because I obviously wasn't that excited by it in the first place. But I couldn't do that with Pi. Here, I felt compelled to complete what was both a fascinating voyage of discovery and unique literary experience.
I embarked on this novel knowing almost nothing about it. I didn't even read a blurb to start with, since I had it in audio book format. And although I didn't know what to expect, I was surprised by what eventuated: the novel opens with the narrator Pi, a 16-yr old Indian boy, telling us about his boyhood in India. He tells us about his father, a zookeeper, and what it was like growing up in a zoo, complete with numerous animal anecdotes; he tells us of his three religions -- hindu, christianity and muslim; and he tells us what persuaded his family to decide to emigrate to Canada. But this is all laying the foundation for the main part of the book, in which he is shipwrecked in a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal Tiger.
I will reveal no more of the story, because this is a book where to know the ending is to change the ultimate experience. I won't say 'ruin' the experience, because I had the ending revealed to me when I was about half way through, and I still felt the power of the book. But it was certainly a different experience than if I had not known.
We felt this book is largely about the need for humans to search for meaning and understanding through story. In the first part of the novel, Pi is fascinated by the different 'stories' associated with his three religions. In his mind, there is but one god, and all that separates the different religions are the different stories used to exemplify them. But although others have described this novel as an exploration of religion, it is only so in that context: in how religion is defined (and possibly created) by story. Religion plays no great part in the novel, other than as a foundation element to establish the premise.
In fact, the entire first section of the novel exists entirely to establish the context for the second and main section, in which Pi is stranded adrift in the lifeboat with the tiger. And that main/middle section exists entirely to explore the overall premise: the importance of story in enabling humans to interpret events that cannot otherwise be interpreted. (OK, I'll stop being cryptic.)
While fascinating, this novel wasn't perfect. I felt it dragged on in several parts, which made it a bit of a slog, even for an audio book. And the opening section gives no hint of what's to come, which turned me off at first, because I wasn't too interested in a whole book in that vein. Particularly when the allegorical tone resulted in a series of passionless accounts of events and fairly superficial characters. We don't even really ever plumb the depths of Pi's character, despite spending months with him at sea, but for the most part it's OK, because the exercise is fairly academic and intellectual.
It's certainly a book I would recommend widely, because it's so different, and is an interesting take on humanity and what we need to survive. It's also a book that leaves you thinking and wanting to discuss it.