This one is kind of cheating, since both Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil are by Yann Martel, yet somehow Beatrice and Virgil never gets the attention it truly deserves.
I know that Life of Pi is a movie now, and is supposed to be pretty good. I just can’t see how so much magical realism can effectively take place on screen without losing the integrity of the story. I’ll probably see the film eventually, but a movie coming out always makes sales of the book go up (which is a good thing. Reading, no matter what the reason, is always a good thing) and if you find yourself really enjoying the book — or the movie, I guess — you should know what to read after you put this volume down.
Like I said, I know this is kind of cheating. But how many people would seriously peruse the shelves for a little-known book by the same author? Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with this, like reading Deperation after finishing The Stand. Maybe you just don’t want to take the time to read a book that wasn’t a New York Times Best Seller and win about a million awards. I’m here to tell you to take the time. It’s well worth it.
A Tiger versus a Donkey and a Monkey
Life of Pi, in case you haven’t seen the movie or read the (brilliant) book, is about a boy who is moving from India to North American with his family and his family’s zoo (his family literally owns a zoo.) The ship they’re on capsizes and Pi, the protagonist, is the only human survivor. He spends the remainder of his trip on a tiny lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker.
In my opinion, Beatrice and Virgil blows Pi out of the water. Titled, not after Dante’s guides through Heaven and Hell but for a taxidermied Donkey and her monkey companion (intrigued yet?) Beatrice and Virgil never comes right out and says what it’s all about.
At the beginning, all we know is that the narrator is an author who released a best-seller and tries to get a second book published, a flip book about the Holocaust. When the idea is rejected by publishers as a gimick, the narrator and his wife move to a new city and set up shop. She goes to work and gives birth to their son. He joins an acting troupe and spends his free time answering letters from fans around the world.
One day, the narrator receives a letter from within his own city, a part of a script about the animal characters Beatrice and Virgil, just talking. He decides to deliver his reply in person and meets the writer of the letter, an old and very strange taxidermist who he quickly becomes fascinated by. But the taxidermist is a reclusive, slightly menacing character, and why does this story about Beatrice and Virgil remind the author so much of his unpublished flip book?
An Example of an Excellent Ending
You will not be prepared for the ending of Beatrice and Virgil. I did not see it coming, but I’m notorious in my family for not being able to guess the whodunit in Scooby-Doo. It is a great twist, heartbreaking and terrible and morbidly fascinating all at once. Two directives for those of you intrigued enough to go out an read Beatrice and Virgil: Read “Games for Gustav” because they will shatter you. Read the author’s bio on the back dust jacket AFTER you finish the book if you want chills.
(i know, i ruined it. it’s what i call “Big Red Button Syndrom.” if no one ever alerted you to the presence of the Big Red Button by telling you not to push it, you never would have even thought about pushing the Big Red Button. but because someone mentioned it, all you can think about is how much you’d like to push that stupid Red Button. don’t read the author bio until after you read the book. i didn’t and i got goosebumps.)
And Yann Martel is an excellent example of an author who, if you like one book, you will almost certainly enjoy his entire body of work. The collection of short stories in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, especially the title story about a boy and his room mate the the game they make up as the room mate dies of AIDS, are beautiful and powerful.