Friday, July 9, 2010

Stuffed: A Book Review of Beatrice and Virgil

By Chip Schrader
Book Review Editor
“Beatrice and Virgil” is Yann Martle’s follow up to the enormously successful “The Life of Pi.” With “Beatrice and Virgil”, Martel continues using themes and characterizations of animals to convey struggles that humanity has encountered over the years.
The story begins with a frustrated author named Henry, who has completed a follow up novel he combined with a non-fiction essay. The first quarter of the book wrangles with idea that fiction and non-fiction overlap, and with Henry’s struggle with publishers and agents to see his vision that this release should be a flip book (a book that can be read with the essay first from one side, and flipped backward with the novel first).
Henry, a loyal and disciplined fan mail reader, comes across a vague letter accompanied by an excerpt from a play about a monkey and a donkey. The letter reads “I read your book and much admired it. I need your help.” As Henry tracks down the return address, he stumbles into a vast taxidermy shop with a whole menagerie of mounted creatures. The author of this strange play that seemed to be about animals and fruit, but not really, is an octogenarian taxidermist also named Henry.
The second half of the book consists of the Henrys working on describing, critiquing and detailing scenes from the play. Young Henry finds himself trying to unlock the meaning of the play and even the taxidermist’s passion for his livelihood.
At times the lists of items Henry spots on a shelf, or the animals he spots in the shop gets tedious (one or two lists go for over a page). While plausibly meaningful, Martel numbs the readers mind with this barrage of itemization. The description also veers into tedium, and makes “Beatrice and Virgil” better suited to a long winter’s read rather than a light summer read where the reader’s mind is likely swimming in a humidity induced laze.
In short, the story shifts from the play, to the life of Henry, and into descriptions of the finer points of taxidermy all within one hundred and twenty pages. By the time it all weaves together, the book is almost over, but Martel leaves very scant threads to encourage the reader to get to this point. For fans of “The Life of Pi,” this is still essential reading. Also, those who enjoy a book focused on philosophical and observational musings will find Martel’s method of engaging the reader satisfying as the story will finally unfold its meaning. Those looking for a page turner based on a traditional storyline will tire of this quickly.
The bottom line, Martel transcends the traditional story arc for a more challenging narrative. It will pay off for readers looking for more than a leisurely read, or a stock narrative that is often written and rewritten in fiction’s mass market. Those who need a break from intricate detail and locution may want to look elsewhere.
Photo caption: Cover of Yann Martle’s “Beatrice and Virgil” (Courtesy photo)