Monday, March 07, 2011

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

"Life and death live and die in exactly the same spot, the body. It is from there that both babies and cancers are born. To ignore death, then, is to ignore life."
Admittedly, I didn't exactly fall in love with Yann Martel's Booker-winning novel, Life of Pi, when I read it back in high school. However, since half a decade had passed since my last experience with Martel (wow, I feel old), and possibly also due to the fact that his latest book is a fairly slender novel, I was interested in giving Beatrice & Virgil, Martel's first novel in nine years, a try. Also, in this case an intriguing cover didn't hurt- what exactly is happening with that pear and knife- I had to know.

Beatrice & Virgil is a story within a story, beginning with an author named Henry who is attempting to write his follow up to an incredibly successful novel featuring wild animals- a character which seems at least loosely based on Martel- without much luck. He pitches the concept of a flip book on the Holocaust, an essay on one side and a novel on the other, to his editors but they completely reject it. In the meantime, his wife and him move to a foreign city where Henry starts working in a chocolate shop. One day a letter arrives for Henry, containing a story by Gustave Flaubert with certain portions high-lighted, as well as a play featuring two characters, Beatrice, a donkey and Virgil, a howler monkey. The letter also includes a note asking for Henry's help, and when he shows up at the address on the letter, which happens to be extremely nearby, he finds out it is a taxidermist shop. An elderly man, also named Henry, works at the shop and introduces to the real Beatrice and Virgil, animals he keeps in the back of his shop.

So begins the odd relationship between the two Henry's, as the writer Henry begins to suspect that the taxidermist Henry is actually writing a play about the Holocaust- just the kind of book his editors had rejected it. Short as Beatrice & Virgil is, it contains even less original content, as it quotes long portions of the Flaubert short story. The story itself is quite a jumble, switching back and forth between various different topics like Henry's relationship with his wife and animals, feelings about becoming a dad, struggling to be a writer and dealing with his new fame and what that means for him as a person, and on top of all of that Martel has attempted to make a statement about the Holocaust. It's simply too much for this one little book and in the end it fumbles and nothing ends up well done.

There were moments of Beatrice and Virgil I enjoyed, such as the excerpt from the play featuring Beatrice and Virgil which includes several pages attempting to describe a pear, and which is where the cover of the book comes from, specifically the line:  
"Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark."
Unfortunately outside of the taxidermist's play, most of the writing isn't very interesting. There also isn't really a plot to Beatrice and Virgil, which isn't a problem in itself, but the characters are also so bland and irrelevant that there is no connection to any of them either, which makes it difficult to care about the outcome of the novel at all. In contrast to Life of Pi, where even if I didn't love the book I could appreciate it, Beatrice and Virgil was completely lackluster for me. I think it could have worked as a short story, but by attempting to draw it out to novel-length Martel was forced to add in additional plot lines and details which did nothing to improve the story. Ultimately, Beatrice and Virgil contains a few interesting points but overall the book was an unexciting and disappointing read.

Release Date: April 6th, 2010
Pages: 208
Overall: 1/5
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This review was a part of TLC Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are completely my own. 


  1. WHere'd that cover come from? I'm sorry the book didn't work for you but really appreciate the thoughtful review. Thanks so much for being on the tour!

  2. @ Lisa, that's the Canadian paperback cover which just intrigued me because it was so odd.


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