Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Beatrice & Virgil

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel
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's review
Apr 22, 10

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, 2010
Read in April, 2010 — I own a copy

You know those people who get put off by a book sheerly because of how popular it is and get it in their head that it sounds boring (the blurb gave it a self-help-fiction-ish tinge* and I loathe self-help) and is bound to be mainstream 'cause so many people are reading it? Yeah I'm one of those. I saw people everywhere reading Life of Pi for a couple of years before I caved and read it - and, I have to use a cliché here, I was "blown away" by how fantastic it was. If you haven't read it, I hope you do. Don't read any reviews or get any opinions first, just read it.

Since the Life of Pi mania (good on 'im too, Canadian author and all!), we've all been eagerly anticipating his next book. Martel felt it too. He takes an ironic poke at our expectations and his possible failings as an author at the very beginning of Beatrice & Virgil, which starts off with a writer, Henry (no doubt loosely based on Martel himself), who after phenomenal success with his first novel takes five years to write a second, about the Holocaust, only to have his publishers knock it down flat.

With his wife Susan, a nurse, they pack up and move to another city. Henry doesn't try write a new book but picks up a job in a chocolate café and joins an amateur theatre group. But he still receives fan mail from all over the world, and one letter changes everything.

It's a letter from a man also called Henry - or rather, it's not a letter but a photocopy of an old Flaubert short story called "The Legend of Saint-Julian the Hospitaller"** and a scene from a play in which two characters, called Beatrice and Virgil, discuss the beauty and magnificence of a pear. A hand-written note is included, simply asking for Henry's help.

Henry is perplexed, unsure what the two manuscripts have in common or what kind of help he's being asked for, though he assumes it's the writerly kind. Coincidentally, the address is only a few streets away, so Henry decides to walk his perfunctory reply over. It turns out to be a taxidermy, full of incredible stuffed animals and animal skulls. The taxidermist is a highly unusual man and quite alienating; inspired by a stuffed donkey and the stuffed howler monkey that sits on her back, his characters are a donkey and a monkey. The two animals live on a shirt - a striped shirt - and talk about what to do next.

As Beatrice and Virgil's story reveals itself piecemeal, Henry gets closer and closer to the truth about the taxidermist. It's a truth that will quietly explode in his face and change him forever.

This is most likely not the story you would have expected, or at least its tone and style is not. When I started it, I had no idea where it was going and so let myself drift on its words, taken where it willed. This usually pays off, and it did here too. This is a book you don't want to overthink, but let quietly stew in your mind for a bit, and just feel. If you try to stop thinking as you read, you'll find the story can live and breathe in your head and take you to a deep dark place. If nothing else, Martel is a delightfully subtle and absorbing writer.

It's written in a style I don't know the word for: heavily third-person, very omniscient but sharing only what it wants to, giving us only one perspective (Henry's) and a strangely limited one at that, yet revealing much. It's very "narrative", almost like there's a voice-over narrator, as in movies like Stranger Than Fiction. Like this:

One day he saw a sign posted in a window: HELP WANTED. On impulse, he inquired. Henry didn't need a job, in fact he couldn't work legally, but he liked the people at The Chocolate Road and he admired their principles. He applied, they were intrigued, they agreed that he would be paid in shares, and, lo, Henry became a small shareholder in a chocolate concern and a part-time waiter and general helper. (pp.25-6)

This calm, studied style is intercepted by excerpts - bits of the short story, scenes from the taxidermists' play, and Games for Gustav, at the end. It's not just the style, the voice, that makes this novel truly unique (I could never get it muddled in my head with any other story), but the characters too.

Beatrice, the donkey, and Virgil, the howler monkey, are two characters you won't be able to forget in a hurry. I finished this book nearly a week ago and they're still alive and fresh in my head. Considering how lacklustre Henry is, and how unpersonable the taxidermist is, Beatrice and Virgil really are the main characters here. It's interesting, how they serve two purposes. The taxidermist, whose past I won't reveal for it would spoil the story, is writing his play ostensibly to draw attention to needless animal cruelty, to the destruction of their natural habitats, their homelessness. Their entire situation is an allegory for something else, and yet even if it weren't, it's still highly relevant. That struck me quite a bit, actually. The parallels, the way we treat animals - the way we treat humans like we treat animals.

There was much here that I admired, that deeply impressed me, not to mention the tragic story of Beatrice and Virgil and how towards the end it made me cry. But I confess, I didn't love it as much as I did his previous book. It's not that it's largely uneventful. It might not be action-packed or highly dramatic; I don't care for that. I think it comes down to the style it's written in. Even though it fits the story perfectly - I don't know that it could have been written any other way and still have the same impact - it's not a style that sits comfortably with me. Even while I'm drawn into the story, there's a part of me that's sitting outside of it, cold and alone and pushed away.

I guess, when it comes down to it, writing being an art form, there's some pain in good art. Good art should make you at least a bit uncomfortable, because if it is, it will make you think. It's also a very clever book, without being at all pretentious or slick. The apparent simplicity of the narrative voice gives it humility, but it's not an easy style to master. If nothing else, Martel has proven he can really write.
That's not what I think of though. I think of Beatrice and Vigril and their homelessness, their list, their love for each other, their sacrifices. And I bleed just a little bit for them, for all of them.


* I get the same "tinge" from books like Five People You Meet in Heaven and Eat Pray Love . It's probably unjustified but they seem to me to be books that are meant to be uplifting and all that. Self-indulgent, I say. Ugh. You'll never see me reading them. Yes, I know, but I draw the line somewhere!

** You can read it for free online here
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02/11 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Boof Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, you've read it??? I'm so jealous! It doesn't come out here until June but the publishers are sending me a review copy (soon, hopefully).

Are you going to write a review?

Shannon (Giraffe Days) I hope you like it Boof - I can see that this one isn't going to please many fans.

Vedant Patil its 'Sarah', not 'Susan'

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