I finished this book in less than a day – I could not stop reading it. Yann Martel is one of the most brilliant writers and ever since I read (and was haunted by) Life of Pi, I’ve been looking forward to reading his next novel.
A Booklist reviewer called this book “a fable-type story with iceberg-deep dimensions reaching far below the surface of its general premise.”
A young author named Henry L’Hote wrote a hugely successful book, but his second novel, eagerly awaited, is pitched to the publishers as a combination of fiction and essays thematically linked to the Holocaust, but presented in a different way than traditionally done. His publishers are appalled that Henry would place such a “sacred cow” of a theme in any setting other than WWII or its time. They tell him the manuscript is unacceptable.
So shaken by their review, Henry abandons his book. In fact, he abandons writing altogether. He and his wife move from Canada to an unnamed great city of the world, and Henry gets a job in a chocolate shop and takes up hobbies in community theater and music.
One day, Henry receives an envelope from someone who has read his book – it’s not unusual as fan mail for his first novel continues to arrive years after the book’s release.
This envelope contains a short story by Flaubert, as well as part of an unfinished play about a monkey and a donkey (Virgil and Beatrice), along with a terse note telling Henry “I need your help.”
The sender turns out to be an eccentric taxidermist, whose personality is as enigmatic as his stuffed creatures are haunting. In helping the taxidermist with his play, Henry becomes attached to the fates of Beatrice and Virgil, but increasingly unsettled by the taxidermist. Ultimately, he has to face a nightmarish discovery about the man who is writing the play, his subject matter, and its origins.
Well, when the description of this book came out, I was skeptical. A monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice? It seemed preposterous and I shuffled it to the bottom of my to-be-read pile.
I should have read this sooner. There are characters within a story within the book, but they’re not what the book is about. In fact, the book is about an author who wrote a book that was about something, but people didn’t get it and he went away and encountered another writer who wrote a play that was about something but not about the something the writer thought it was about.
Confused? Don’t be. Don’t think about it. Just read the book and keep reading and keep reading and immerse yourself in it. I was enthralled by the characters, the turns in the story, the quiet and perfectly intricate way the story unfolded. By the end, when the fog lifted from the story, I was sobbing. I was crushed by this story, but it was so GOOD.
I’ve seen some VERY mixed reviews of this book – I am on the side of considering it a masterpiece. This was probably one of the best books I have read this year, and is going into my pantheon of top books I ask people to read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.