‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood

catseyeFew authors can write about the everyday merged with significant life events in such an erudite, engaging manner as Canadian Margaret Atwood.

Successful painter Elaine Risley, on returning to Toronto for the first time in many years to attend a major retrospective of her work, reflects on her post-war childhood. But this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The fact is that I hate this city. I’ve hated it so long I can hardly remember feeling any other way about it…. I live [now] in British Columbia, which is as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning.

Bitter memories crowd her thoughts as a peripatetic childhood travelling round Canada with her parents and brother comes to an end as the family move into a new Toronto suburb. Risley senior, an entomologist, has given up researching various bugs in their natural habitat and accepted a lecturing position.

New home, new school for the Risley kids. And Elaine suddenly discovers what’s defined as normal behaviour for a young suburban eight year-old girl. But a year of being best friends with Grace and Carol changes with the arrival of Cordelia.

The dynamics of the group shifts – in her innocence and lack of awareness of the ‘rules’, Elaine does not recognise the cruelty of the three. A psychological pattern of behaviour is established that is to profoundly affect her perceptions of relationships and her world. It is only years later that Elaine is able to come to terms with a level of understanding – and much of this understanding is achieved through her art. But even now, on her return to Toronto, Elaine still hopes (and partially needs) to see Cordelia and gain her approval – in spite of the fact it has been twenty/thirty or so years since the two ‘friends’ last met. “She wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends… I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.” But this mourning for her past – including contact with John, her first husband – wandering the changed city streets provides a level of closure.

Interestingly, for a story that revolves around the psychological bullying and mental abuse of a young girl, the unfolding of these events takes up a remarkably short part of Atwood’s novel. But it is the long-term impact that is explored. Years later, Elaine’s mother voices recognition of the cruelty of her friends, although she identifies Carol as the main perpetrator.

Cat’s Eye is a profoundly moving, exquisite character study, tender in the ebb and flow of its memories. Moderately happy, there is an air of melancholia around Elaine, although even she herself identifies that she is not always the victim. “It disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.”

Margaret Atwood’s seventh novel (it followed The Handmaid’s Tale), Cat’s Eye was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize but lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day.

 

 

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‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai

71qai7hvu+LAnita Desai’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel is possibly the most frustrating reads I have had the misfortune of encountering in a very long time. To say I disliked it is a complete understatement.

A craven, weak-willed, poorly-paid lecturer of Hindi at a northern Indian city outside of Delhi, Deven is an infuriating metaphor for the downtrodden everyman, constrained by his lowly station and limited opportunities in life.

When Deven is offered the opportunity by a former schoolfriend to interview Nur, the greatest living poet in the Urdu language, he grasps at it, daring to dream of publication and escape from the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of Mirpore. Although a dying language in India since Independence, to Deven it is the lyrical language of poetry and a memory of the literary aspirations of his long-deceased father. But it’s Deven’s timidity and inertia that proves such an undertaking as a disaster.

Populated by a series of unseemly, grasping individuals, In Custody is unpleasant throughout. There is little love in Deven’s marriage to Sarla and everyone encountered takes advantage of him – whether it is the ageing, alcoholic Nur, himself trapped by acolytes and hangers-on, the publishing-school friend, Murad or fellow lecturer Mr Siddiqui.

Bills mount as he tries to follow his dream, but instead of interviews and recitals, demands for rum, biriyani, kebabs, room rental, tape recording purchases arrive. But, ever the eternal victim, at no point do we witness a proactive Deven vaguely attempt to turn things to his advantage (however slight). His obsequiousness towards the hero-worshipped poet over the course of the (thankfully) short novel wears the patience.

There is a great deal of symbolism within Desai’s writing, some of it more obvious than others. The title itself is indicative of the lives of all the characters: each is entrapped, imprisoned, held captive. And, to the initiated, political commentary is likely, touching as it does on linguistic, political and cultural issues. But that does not alter the fact that In Custody is an infuriating and unlikeable read.

Anita Desai was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but lost out to Anita Brookner and Hotel du Lac.

‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer

9780349139005-uk-300“I will design you a life. Not a mere house to live in, but a whole way of life.” So states modernist German architect Rainer von Abt to the recently married Landauers, a wealthy couple living in the recently independent Czechoslovakia.

The minimalist Landauer house of glass and concrete causes a sensation in the tessellated, crenellated decorative tastes of the former Habsburg Empire. And for ten years, Viktor and Liesel enjoy von Abt’s promise: scintillating conversation along with the attention and company of artists, writers, musicians (both Czech and German). With its lack of ornamental detraction, Abt’s vision provides the growing family with an uninterrupted view to the world beyond. But, with rise of Nazism and fascism across Europe, it’s not a view Viktor welcomes.

Seeing the writing on the wall and ignoring the ‘it’ll soon blow over’ opinions around him, Viktor, as a Jew, transfers the bulk of his wealth and flees (with his family) firstly to neutral Switzerland before heading to the States via Cuba. He is one of the lucky ones.

But Simon Mawer’s novel is, ultimately, not the story of the Landauer family nor is it a telling of the Holocaust. The star of this particular tale is the building itself, a building sitting imperiously on a (large) suburban block with views over the unnamed Město (Czech for ‘town’) and its medieval castle.

As the Landauers depart, so German research scientists move in: post war under the Communist regime it’s a children physiotherapy gymnasium until, finally, it becomes a museum. Turning full circle, an ageing Liesel Landor (with an Americanised surname) returns, in 1968, to attend the official launch. The house is much changed having been damaged during the war along with general neglect. But Liesl, in spite of her blindness, knows every inch of her former beloved home.

In 1929, Fritz and Greta Tugendhat commissioned renowned German modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design and build them a home in the wealthy neighbourhood of Černá Pole in Brno in then Czechoslovakia. Today, it is regarded as one of the pioneering prototypes of modern European architecture and, after many uses, was repaired and opened as a museum in 2012. It had ceased to be a family home following the departure of the Tugendhats as a result of the Munich Accord in 1938.

Simon Mawer’s fascinating story is a fictional account of a house inspired by the Villa Tugendhat. Characters come and go but Liesel, her best friend Hana and the caretaker, Lanik, remain constant. It is they who hold the human narrative of the house through the 60 years of the novel. Yet all the characters interact with and within the house itself – with its oversized plate glass windows, history takes place inside the glass room not outside.

Like its architecture, The Glass Room loses the artifice of the time – Viktor is a proponent of innovation and progress. Yet he struggles with the thoroughly modern Hana and her outspoken sexual frankness and flirtatiousness – as does her wartime lover, Hauptsturmführer Stahl, the head scientist at the Landauer House.

The Glass Room is, in the first instance, the story of an evolving marriage – that of Viktor and Liesel. But it’s also about relationships over the different time zones and events – Liesel and Hana, Viktor and Katalin, Hana and Stahl, Hana and Zdenka, Zdenka and Tomas (the latter two taking place in the Communist-era 1960s). And centre stage is that house, a symbol of the new world post World War 1 but which falls into decay with liberation from German control by the Russian army.

Towards the end, it does become a little ‘safe’ and comfortable – and Mawer’s narrative relies a little too much on coincidence and chance. But these are minor caveats. The Glass Room is a beautifully written novel of considerable power about human frailty and strength.

Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, The Glass Room had the misfortune of competing against the unstoppable Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland

3vm2w2y5-1398227068A fair-dinkum 1970s Aussie bloke’s story – an everyman’s tale of life centred round the pub in an Australia already dying when David Ireland wrote this wry, compelling novel. Away from the glamorous beaches of coastal Sydney, it’s the working class western suburbs, pre-gentrification, pre-multiculturalism and by far pre-2000 Olympic Games.

It’s a vernacular tapestry of life in The Southern Cross, with short one-page observations or three page chapters of events and local characters as they come and go as told by our narrator, Meat Man. (It’s a man’s world, remember – size does matter and Meat has earned his monicker).

The Southern Cross is no welcoming drinking hole as the regulars comfortably spend six days a week looking into their beer. “On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.”

Along with Meat, characters such as Alky Jack, Aussie Bob, Serge, The King and the only woman of significance within the hallowed walls, Sharon the barmaid, populate The Southern Cross. In this territorial world, casual strangers are at best frowned upon, but more usually invited “outside”. Drunken philosophies, pointless arguments, sudden outbursts of extreme violence abound.

Yet, in spite of the violence and the fact there’s an awful lot of deaths (natural and suspicious), there’s also plenty of (laconic) humour on tap. And Ireland never judges his characters – he simply presents them as they are in all their honest rawness and flawed humanity.

It’s a subculture long lost (mostly) within contemporary Australia and few tears are shed for the demise of a brutal, misogynist maledom. Yet Ireland’s vivid characterisation reminds us of something that once was.

The Glass Canoe, David Ireland’s fifth novel, won the 1976 Miles Franklin Award (adding to his 1971 win for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner).

 

‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar

salt creekLucy Treloar’s debut novel is something of a grower. What starts out seemingly as another Australian novel dealing with European settlement in the mid 1800s and the impact it has on the indigenous population becomes something more – much more.

As seen through the eyes of Hester Finch, a privileged 15 year-old at the onset of Salt Creek, we experience the fall from grace of the Finch family due to her father’s overbearing pride and poor business acumen. After another failed enterprise, rather than accept the support of his wife’s parents, he forces the family to leave their comfortable Adelaide existence and head to the beautiful yet harsh coastal landscape of the remote Coroong, a few days ride to the south.

Just opened up to graziers willing to try their luck, the inhospitable region offers opportunities. But driven by Finch’s inexperienced attempts to tame the land and spread Christian values, so he brings hardship, disease and death not only to his own family, but also the displaced Ngarrindjeri.

Leaving Adelaide society behind is not easy for Hester, her younger sister Addie (Adelaide) or the girls’ mother, “the journey to that place was like moving knowingly, dutifully, towards death.” And the rough hewn home among the sand dunes where “there was no porch at the front, only dirt and crushed grass about the house, growing longer against the walls where feet had not trod” has left them devastated, bringing home to them “just how far we had fallen.”

The Finch sons (Stanton and Hugh in particular) see adventure and triumph in ownership of the land. They care nothing for history and the indigenous community who they believe has no rights of access to the water holes, coastal fishing spots or land upon which they seasonally camp. They care nothing for their father’s colonialist Quakerism in wanting to civilise the “local savages”: the introduction of Tull from the Ngarrindjeri into the household as a “project” instils nothing but suspicion.

Over time and watching her ailing mother, Hester places the blame of the family demise firmly with her father. Not that her opinion counts for much – even though her parents support education for both their sons and daughters, Hester’s duty is determined by her gender.

But in the first instance, she knows the need to support their father. Success in the venture would mean a quicker return to the city and conversation. But, unlike most works of fiction exploring settlement, rather than successes in the face of adversity, Salt Creek offers struggling adaptation and failure instead.

Death and discord within the family changes the dynamics. Outside of polite society, perception of duty shifts. Penury brings with it altered expectations and hopes. And then there’s the evolving relationship between Addie and Tull.

The family’s isolation results in the introduction of few other characters – the recently widowed Mrs Robinson, owner of the Traveller’s Inn a half day’s ride away (Irish and a history of working in service means the Finch womenfolk only call upon her once): Mr Bagshot and his son, Charles, travelling through in the mapping of the area: the occasional constable. Few of the Ngarrindjeri themselves cross paths with the family.

It is the relationship between these few characters that is at the heart of Lucy Treloar’s superb novel. As much a story of family, duty, love and tragedy as commentary on European settlement, Salt Creek questions perceptions and assumptions of the time.

The destruction of indigenous culture by the family percolates throughout yet Salt Creek is as much about European Christian hypocrisy and the position of women in 19th century with its limited choices determined by men. Hester is driven to leave her durance behind at all costs: Addie eventually succumbs to social expectation. Masculinity itself is also touched upon – from the strutting Stanton through to the much gentler third brother, Fred: from the romantic Charles Bagshot to the bible-reading father: from the so-called uncivilised Tull to the inn owner, Mr Martin.

Intertwining the characters and events that befall them with real historical events, Lucy Treloar has produced something of a classic novel of early Australian European history. Shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award, it lost out to A.S.Patric and Black Rock, White City.

 

 

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire

9781743538579-1As the police look to solve the brutal murder of 25 year-old Bella Michaels, so her older sister, Chris, deals with the loss of her closest friend.

But whilst An Isolated Incident is a crime thriller, it’s far from a whodunit. In choosing to focus on the victim and the people affected by Bella’s death, writer Emily Maguire traces the ripple effects in the (fictional) country town of Strathdee, a truck-stop midway between Sydney and Melbourne. And, as the media descend in droves, infatuated not only with violent crime but in unearthing every sordid (or not so sordid) story, so Chris herself becomes thrust into the limelight, along with ex-husband, Nate.

Chris herself is no angel. A big-breasted barmaid, she uses her body to get what she wants. And if that includes a truck driver or two passing through town every couple of months, so be it. That’s how she found Nate. But too much boozing led to his departure – and Nate now lives in Sydney and has a child on the way. News of Bella’s death brings him back to Strathdee to support his ex-wife.

Lonely, Chris had turned more and more to the bottle and truck drivers passing through – and if they left a few $20 notes on the bedside table, even better. Aimless, it was her younger sister who sorted Chris out. But she’s now gone…

It doesn’t take long for the media to dig up the stories and they have a field day when it’s discovered Nate has a record for violence towards women. There are even a few stories about Chris and Nate’s marriage.

Judgements abound about Chris’ lifestyle – yet the casual pickups of young reporters by one of the male townies are smiled upon. Misogyny, double-standards, intimidation is rampant, as is violence towards women. The murder of a young woman by her husband in Strathdee barely receives a mention (it’s solved too quickly to warrant much media attention).

It’s a young female reporter, May, who strikes up a supportive relationship with Chris. Initially suspicious, the barmaid comes to rely upon May, particularly after Nate returns to Sydney. She becomes the new Bella.

It’s a chilling narrative that is compelling in spite of the fact that, as a thriller, the search for the killer takes a back seat. And in Chris Rogers (Bella had a different father), Emily Maguire has created a figure, an ‘everywoman’, who may be riddled with flaws and faults but is still a raw, empathic, humane figure.

An Isolated Incident has been shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award (the announcement of the winner takes place in September).

 

 

‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

landscape-of-farewellA meditative and wholly engaging novel, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell is the story of knowledge and understanding – of oneself, of the past, of the land, of ageing and of friendship.

Recently widowed, German academic Max Otto is looking to end his own life: his valedictory public lecture to be followed by a deadly mix of pills and alcohol in his Hamburg apartment. Only he had not foreseen the presence of Professor Vita McLelland – a feisty visiting Indigenous Australian academic from Sydney. She challenges Max and his less than impressive final words.

Unexpectedly, through an unplanned post-lecture discussion, a level of understanding between them evolves, resulting in an invitation to speak at a conference in Sydney a few months later. Vita also wants Max to spend time with her uncle, Dougald, at his home in the bush.

A deep, understated friendship evolves between Max and Dougald. In simple, rustic surrounds, the two settle into a life of easy domesticity with few words and long periods of silence. But Dougald also draws Max into his own history – and in particular that of Gnapun, his grandfather, a fabled warrior. As we are told the story of Gnapun leading a group of men into massacring Christian settlers a century earlier, so Max finds himself reflecting on his father and the never-asked question of his role in the Second World War.

Memories of his childhood come to the surface – an absent father, the one-legged uncle to whom he was sent off to help on the farm with the advent of the war – providing a suspended sense of time as Miller weaves us between the present and both men’s past. And, as with Max’s uncle, desperate for his nephew to understand “It is the soil of our fathers,” his uncle would rage, shaking his fist at him. “This soil is us! … We are this soil.”, so Dougald talks of the high country where the Old People dwell in the rocks, the soil, the trees of nature. Yet Dougald celebrates that past, whereas Max has long buried it. It is in the writing of Dougald’s story that Max recognises we are all “members of this same murdering species”.

Landscape of Farewell is a haunting novel full of incident yet simultaneously meditative. The two old men move at their own pace, yet still cover a great deal. A large part of the novel may well find Max feeding the hens or goat but then the two octogenarians also clamber steep isolated escarpments in Dougald’s home country, his first visit for decades. It is this journey into country that provides both men their resolution of reconciliation and redemption. Dougald may pass on to join the Old People, but Max is now free, back in Hamburg, to venture into ‘the darkness of his family’s silence.”

Alex Miller’s eighth novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award but he lost out to Steven Carroll and The Time We Have Taken. Miller has won the Miles Franklin on two separate occasions – in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.

 

‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy

Booker_Levy-xlarge_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqrnykcIhNBTQGIhNzmTaT-bRxN3k0gyKMaHVGwcklXbAIn spite of a (mostly) semi-desolate, southern Spanish location, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is a story of interiors and the claustrophobic confines of home and family. As Sofia looks to discover the cause of her mother’s multitude of illnesses at the clinic beside the Mediterranean, so she herself discovers more about herself and the ties that bind her to Rose and her absent, Greek father.

It’s an enigmatic novel. The relatively straightforward narrative of Sofia and Rose arriving at the Spanish seaside village (almost deserted of tourists due to a plague of jellyfish) looking for a diagnosis at Gomez’s controversial clinic for Rose’s inability to walk is interspersed with streams of symbolic fancy and daydreams.

A PhD exploring memory following a first class honours degree in anthropology lies abandoned as Sofia drifts through life. Meeting local student Juan followed by German seamstress Ingrid unleashes a new sexual longing in Sofia, a longing repressed by the chains of her mother’s incessant demands and needs.

A barista at a local café in London, Sofia’s home is the storeroom. Visiting her estranged father and new family in Athens, she sleeps in the spare room, a windowless stockroom. Leaving the door of the rented Spanish villa unlocked may create an illusion of freedom, but her options are closed. Gomez may or may not be a quack but can he release Sofia from Rose?

Hot Milk was the bookies favourite to win the 2016 Booker Prize, variously described as ‘hypnotic’, ‘mesmerising’ and ‘gorgeous’. I do not agree.

Levy’s poetic writing is at times obscure and pretentious, the novel’s equivalent of an art house film’s imbroglio of impenetrable (or just plain annoying) symbolism (did we really need the clinic to be built from marble so that it resembles “a spectral, solitary breast”?). Rose is one of the most unlikeable of all characters – a litany of dismissive complaints about the weather, the food, the people in the early stages of the narrative is a stereotype of the British abroad. And whilst there is, initially, a level of downtrodden sympathy for Sofia and her guilt, she does little to help herself in the course of the, thankfully, short novel.

Levy’s novel lost out to the first American to win the Booker Prize, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

‘Bitter Fruit’ by Achmat Dangor

Bitter_Fruit_(Dangor_novel)Set in 1998 South Africa, just a few years after the end of apartheid and majority rule came into force, Bitter Fruit is a dense, harrowing drama of a disintegrating middle-class ‘coloured’ family. A chance sighting of former security policeman, Lieutenant Du Boise, stirs bitter memories of 20 years prior that have a devastating impact on the Ali family.

A cynical, embittered Silas Ali, approaching 50, a former ANC activist, now liaises between the Minister of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His wife, Lydia, ten years younger, is a nurse who, during the course of the novel, establishes her independence by becoming a significant player in the research of HIV transmission. Their highly intelligent, strikingly beautiful but increasingly troubled son, Mikey/Michael, loses his way, drops out of university and becomes involved with Muslim activists.

The marriage between Silas and Lydia is increasingly built on false premise – and the sighting of Du Boise brings it to a head: Lydia’s violent rape at the hands of the security forces, Silas’ inability to acknowledge or address events of that night. But there’s more, so much more, all of which goes unsaid and it is this bitter fruit that becomes so unbearable, open wounds so deep that the two have been in a state of limbo for 20 years.

Rape, incest, murder, alcoholism, divorce – the fruits of apartheid – past and present all feature in Bitter Fruit.

Through a series of incredibly well-drawn characters (the Ali family, Lydia’s extended family, friends and colleagues), we are provided with a powerful insight into the new South Africa and the “grey, shadowy morality” of an ANC government “bargaining, until there was nothing left to barter with, neither principle nor compromise”. And the political, cultural and religious conflicts that inevitably impact.

Yet it is the evolving family drama that remains centre stage throughout Bitter Fruit in spite of the political context – and it is the stronger for it. Mikey/Michael is a child of the new South Africa and he reflects on the failings of his parents’ generation. Silas has to come to terms with the new order – a place where elevated involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle has been replaced by a sense of ordinariness. And Lydia must face her past in order to move forward.

But in the same way family friend Julian accepts his wife Val leaving him and embraces his homosexuality (no bitter fruit there), the Alis need to look to change as Mandela looks to hand over the responsibility of power – in with the new, out with the old. Silas is soon likely to be out of a job – as are his colleagues Kate and Alec. Mikey/Michael leaves behind the sexual conquests of older, white women and looks to finding a personal resolution at the Griffith Street Mosque and the Sufis.

Bitter Fruit is a challenging read. But it is also an incredibly rewarding one. Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink etc have provided the voices of white South African dissension, but Dangor’s novel helps provide a different perspective. The characters in Bitter Fruit ensure no one singular voice is presented, that a multifaceted account is provided, reflecting a modern day South Africa.

And, growing up in one of the ‘coloured’ townships of Johannesburg, witnessing first hand the violence, despair and injustice of an apartheid state before rising, via ANC activism, to head the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor’s voice can be assumed to be genuine and authentic.

Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize but lost out to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

‘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.