‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

lifeofpiA young teenager afloat the Pacific Ocean in a 26-foot long boat with only a Bengal tiger for company: Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, late of Pondicherry in Southern India, the only human survivor of the shipwreck of a cargo boat travelling to Canada.

Having sold the family zoo, the Patels are fleeing the corruption of India for a better life in the frozen wastes of North America. Aboard are a few of the animals bound for American institutions. Only they do not make it. A storm two days out of Manila sees the boat sink – and Pi along with an injured zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and Richard Parker, the tiger, survive.

But not for long. Hyena soon dispatches the zebra, quickly followed by the orang-utan. But Richard Parker dispenses with the hyena. Now tiger and boy establish an uneasy routine for survival.

Life of Pi is told in three sections (and precisely 100 ‘chapters’) with the middle section by far the longest and which details the extraordinary journey of 227 days aboard the lifeboat. It’s rich in explanation of Pi’s survival techniques and his gradual training of the tiger to enable the two to reach an uneasy truce.

Such a story inevitably pushes the boundaries of believability. But then Life of Pi is full of metaphor and symbolism. Born into a Hindu family, the intelligent and curious Pi adds Catholicism and Islam to his beliefs, seeking out answers to his questions of faith in Pondicherry prior to the family’s departure.

“A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day.”

Through him, Yann Martel finds harmonious common ground in the three religions. Through his fantasy adventure novel, Martel looks to encourage belief in the unbelievable – one of the major hurdles to faith and believing in God.

But an alternative is provided by Pi in the third and final section of the novel – the ‘human answer’ he gives to officials from the Japanese shipping agents, owners of the cargo boat. Pi’s mother becomes the orang-utan, an injured seaman the zebra, the crazed cook from the boat the hyena. Pi himself is Richard Parker.

The ‘truth’ of Pi’s story is of little concern – the issue is the reader’s preference. Interpretation is, of course, subjective and its intention here is theological reflection. Do you need concrete proof or can you take things on faith?

‘Everything was normal and then…?’

‘Normal sank.’

Life of Pi is unquestionably overwritten at times – the first section in particular left me frequently impatient with its descriptions and long-windedness. But, theological symbolism aside, life aboard the lifeboat is fascinating and engaging reading. And, oddly, verging on believable. There are a couple of significant exceptions – the floating island of acidic algae populated by millions of meerkats and meeting the alter ego, also adrift. But by then Pi had been alone for some 200 days so an element of madness is excusable (although these incidents did feel like excuses for Pi to descend into paroxysms of theological wonder and divinity. From the outset we are told that this is a story that will make you believe in God).

That particular objective failed to materialise in me personally but as a yarn set on the high seas, with the exception of that tendency to overwrite and slip into philosophical and theological musings, Life of Pi is an engaging read.

Yann Martel’s second published novel was awarded the 2002 Booker Prize.

‘Spiderman: Homecoming’

Spider-Man-Homecoming-poster-2-largeAn adolescent superhero within an adolescent storyline. The cheeky charm of Tom Holland (The Impossible, How I Live Now), introduced as Peter Parker in a cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War wears thin over the length of Jon Watts’ (Cop Car, Clown) first foray into the Marvel canon.

A predictable storyline (youth ignored by adults who therefore relies on his own wits to save the day) with a flat, uninvolving telling with little real excitement and only the occasional flashes of humour. That’s Spiderman: Homecoming.

Rating: 32%

‘Baby Driver’

baby-driver-posterPure unadulterated entertainment. It’s slick, fun, engaging with a fabulous soundtrack and an ubercool lead in Ansel Elgort as Baby (Insurgent, The Fault in Our Stars).

Nearly a decade as the getaway driver for crime boss Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, Horrible Bosses) closes in – but just because he’s paid his debt does not mean Baby can simply drive off into the sunset with new beau, Lily James (Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). It’s a heist bound to fail – especially with pyscho Jamie Foxx and trigger happy husband and wife team, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez in the vehicle.

Director Edgar Wright’s (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) narrative may not be original, but a surfeit of ideas, fun and sheer class make Baby Driver one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 83%

‘The Beguiled’

timthumb.phpA languid, Southern Gothic psychosexual potboiler as a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell – In Bruges, Miami Vice) turns up at a Virginia girls school at the height of the American civil war.

His arrival awakens sexual longing for the adult teachers left at the school (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) as well as kindles burgeoning sexuality among the girls (particularly Elle Fanning). Erotic, poetic, tense – the southern humidity is palpable in the enclosed, claustrophobic space of the girls’ privileged environment.

The Beguiled, seemingly more expertly teased than directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette), is a beautifully nuanced ensemble piece that, whilst at times a little slow, tells its visceral story with aplomb.

Rating: 73% 

‘A Quiet Passion’

a-quiet-passion-2016-posterA series of related tableau (some short and extremely witty) unfold the life of American poet Emily Dickinson.

The dialogue is quick fire passionate, the scenes stifling, claustrophobic and painterly with soft autumnal lighting, the performances arch with Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City‘s Miranda Hobbs) masterly as the poet, ably supported by Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty, TV’s Pride & Prejudice) as her sister.

But by its nature and subject (Dickinson rarely left the family home or, in later years, her rooms) A Quiet Passion is somewhat static. The glorious humour in the early part of the narrative peters out as an embittered Dickinson ages and her recognition as a poet fails to materialise. Writer/director Terence Davies (Sunset Song, The Deep Blue Sea) focuses on her inner demons, resulting in an austere, repressed telling of the poet and her family life.

Rating: 68%

‘Monsieur Chocolat’

MonChoc_A4posterWith an immense physicality and a most extraordinary smile, Omar Sy (The Intouchables, Jurassic World)  is one of the most expressive of actors. So he’s the perfect fit for Rafaela Padilla, the first black circus performer to conquer Belle Epoque Paris.

The rise and fall of Padilla as Monsieur Chocolat is told in a somewhat episodic, traditional biopic manner by director Roschdy Zem (Bad Faith, Omar Killed Me). Racism of the day along with gambling and drug abuse saw to his downfall but, along with Sy’s performance, the story itself is engaging.

 

Rating: 59%

‘The Clothes On Their Backs’ by Linda Grant

3992216There’s a simplicity and fluidity to Linda Grant’s fourth novel that imbues a slightly odd voyeurism – that as the reader, we are sitting watching events unfold rather reading about them, such is the power of her imagery and storytelling. But there’s nothing simple about her themes, that of identity and sense of belonging as Vivien Kovacs, daughter of post-war Hungarian Jewish refugees, tries to find her way in 1970s London.

Viven’s parents fled Budapest immediately before the war: so grateful to be taken in they barely disturb the air they breathe. They avoid contact with the outside world wherever possible and refuse to look back on their history – even with their only daughter, who is not made aware of the family religion until her teenage years.

It’s a lonely life for Vivien and much of the young girl’s discovery of the real world outside the Marylebone apartment is through the (mostly) ageing tenants of Benson Court – including the losing of her virginity at 17 to an artist living immediately below her parents.

But there is a family secret – Sandor Kovacs, the father’s older brother. He’s a persona non grata to Ervin and Berta, who go to great lengths to deny any contact or even mention his name: it’s not until her late teens that Vivien knows for certain she has an uncle and that he’s in London.

But there again, much of The Clothes On Their Backs is constructed on secrets, lies and altered truths. It’s through her uncle that Vivien finds out about her family history and the secrets her own father has kept from both his wife and his daughter. And it is this that fans the feud between the two brothers who are like chalk and cheese. But Vivien herself has taken on a different persona to secure this knowledge.

With the rise of the racist National Front movement unfolding in the background (potentially mirroring the political change in Europe in 1939/40 that so deeply impacted on the Kovacs brothers), Vivien comes to understand a little more about herself.

Sandor was imprisoned for 14 years as a slum landlord responsible for extortion and violence towards his tenants living in squalid living conditions – part of the reason why Ervin refuses to have any dealings with the only surviving member of his family. But it is counterbalanced by Sandor’s incarceration in the ‘Labour Army’ during the war, presenting a different side of Vivien’s uncle.

The Clothes On Their Backs is a complex novel, elegant and insightful, quietly and perceptively exploring loss, love, family ties and family feuds.

Shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, Grant lost out to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.

‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay

9780099593690A Danish journalist is chasing down a sex scandal story involving a high-ranking government official: a young Frenchman holidays alone in Cyprus. All That Man Is – a pan-European series of nine short stories or a cohesive, singular insight into different strands of ‘maledom’? The jury is out but its shortlisting for the 2016 Booker Prize suggests it’s officially accepted into the latter category.

Personally, I err towards the former. And, as with any compendium of short stories, I felt slightly cheated in its reading. Twenty or so pages per narrative leave little in terms of any sense of significant depth of character or situation. Yet, to be fair, David Szalay, in those few pages and through his quick sketches, generally portrays more about his characters’ emotional limitations than some writers achieve in 300+ pages.

Nine stories, nine variously aged men hailing from different European countries – with each protagonist on a journey, actual as well as metaphorical. Bookending the book are two British characters. 17 year-old Simon is inter-railing round Europe with a friend before their first year at Oxford: his grandfather, a retired diplomat, is spending time at the family holiday home in Italy. Sandwiched between is a series of stories that include a Russian billionaire looking to commit suicide, a Hungarian bodyguard on a job in London and a Belgian philologist delivering a luxury car to a buyer in Krakow.

The protagonists are diverse but there exists a level of homogeneity, a melancholic undercurrent of yearning for something almost intangible or beyond their grasp. No matter how ostensibly different they are, their concerns appear to be similarly mordant and narrow.

Inevitably, with nine separate (linked?) narratives to choose from, some are stronger/more appealing than others. The Danish journalist is a particularly strong tale as we journey through the different stages of man (each man is progressively approximately seven years older than his predecessor) – the deputy editor of Scandinavia’s biggest selling newspaper, Kristian is surprisingly humane towards his ‘victim.’ And the final story, of Tony slowly recovering from a heart attack, listening to a young girl sing in a café whilst he ponders on the inscription Amemus eterna et non peritura (Let us love that which is eternal and not what is transient), seen earlier that morning at Pomposa Abbey, is a gentle, allegoric narrative that packs a punch not initially obvious.

Less interesting were the earlier, youthful stories – Simon and his yearning for a classmate back in England, the Hungarian bodyguard finding himself outside the Park Lane Hilton in the early hours of the morning on too many occasions.

All That Man Is was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize but lost out to the first American to win the award, Paul Beatty and his The Sellout.

’20th Century Women’

HO00004115The latest from Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker) is a beautifully balanced late 70s nostalgic ensemble piece of likeable people.

As a single mother, the matriarch, a never better Annette Bening (American Beauty, The Kids Are Alright) quite rightly takes centre stage, persuading Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning help raise and guide her 15 year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Arguably not the most sensible choices as mentors – Gerwig’s feminist influences leave Jamie in fights with school friends over clitoral orgasms and Fanning heads off on a road trip with Jamie in tow.

It’s a film full of contradictions and it does occasionally slip into anecdotal gratification but relative newcomer Zumann is a delight and, possibly for the first time, I personally liked Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) on screen.

Rating: 69%

‘Sing Street’

sing_streetDelightful, feel-good and totally endearing, the latest from John Carney (Once, Begin Again) yet again presents the good in both character and narrative (and provides a ripper of a soundtrack).

A nostalgic revisit to the 80s with a story that, whilst hardly innovative (new boy at school overcomes bullying, wins the girl and gains popularity), uses music to flesh out its tale. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a convincing innocent discovering his inner Duran Duran or The Cure – and the relationship with his music mentor brother Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Free Fire) adds an extra layer of oddball warmth.

Rating: 69%