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3.5 out of 5 stars
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3.5 out of 5 stars
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Like Yann Martel himself, Henry is a Canadian author whose second book - which features wild animals - has become both a critical success and a wildly popular bestseller. He then struggles for five years with his next book, which is about the ways that the Holocaust is represented in literature. He thinks he has found a fresh approach to tell the story, but his publisher, editor and agent unanimously reject it. Henry and his wife move away and he takes a break from writing. He starts working in a café, takes up the clarinet and joins an amateur theatrical group. One day he receives a package containing a short story by Flaubert (in which many animals are killed) together with an extract from a original play featuring a discussion between two characters: Beatrice and Virgil. An accompanying note reads: "I need your help". This prompts him to track down the author, an elderly taxidermist (also named Henry) who lives in the same city. Taxidermist Henry has been working on his play for 40 years, but isn't satisfied with it. At this point the plot slows down, and the play becomes the focus of the story.

So Beatrice and Virgil is a strange combination of what seems to be a highly autobiographical memoir with a not-very-compelling mystery, that centres on a play about a donkey and a howler monkey living on a striped shirt - which is itself a fairly laboured and obvious metaphor for something else. And that's the biggest issue for me. When I started reading the book I felt that it was stimulating, riddled with clues and associations, that it was operating on so many levels. But as I read on, I increasingly felt that I was being bludgeoned with the same heavy-handed metaphors over and over. I don't want to give away too much about the ending - which comes abruptly - other than to say that I found it both heart-breaking and blatantly manipulative.

This is a hard book to rate because it's difficult for me to separate my emotional response from my intellectual one. My emotional response is that I didn't like it - I loved the beginning, but hated it by the end - and yet, I still think it has impact and merit. It's interesting and ironic for me that a book which is about an author who wants to write a new and meaningful take on the Holocaust but fails, ultimately becomes a failed attempt to write the very same thing.

Having said that, many parts of the book are beautifully written and are a pleasure to read. Martel has a gorgeous turn of phrase - for example, there's a lovely description early on about the German language and how it differs from the English language.

Beatrice and Virgil would be a perfect book for bookclubs because it's a quick read, it has so many layers and almost everyone is likely to have a strong response - whether positive or negative - to it. There's plenty I'm sure that I didn't "get" - including why the two central characters share the same name.
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VINE VOICEon 28 July 2010
I barely know where to start with this book. I actually finished it over a week ago but wanted to wait a while to collect my thoughts about it and see if they are any clearer after some consideration. They aren't: I am just as confused.

I was so desperate to get my mitts on this book: Life of Pi is one of my all-time favourites and I have developed a huge crush on tigers since reading the book. When I saw the cover and the blurb for Beatrice and Virgil I was practically cartwheeling round the room in anticipation of my my brand new crush on donkeys and howler monkeys. It's by Yann Martel. It's got animals in it. What's not to love?

I will attempt to describe the plot now: There is an author called Henry who has had two really successful books out and he has just written a third which gets panned by his publishers. In the first 20 pages of this book I learned more about flip books than I ever realised I cared (and am assured that I still don't). Henry throws his toys out of the pram and moves to another (unamed) city to live off his previous royalties and do things like join an orchestra and a drama group without writing another thing. One day he ets a strange letter from a man also called Henry. The letter contains a chapter of a play that Henry #2 has written and asks Henry #1 for help. Coincidentally, Henry #2 lives in the same city where Henry #1 has just moved to so Henry #1 decides to pay him a visit and finds that Henry #2 lives and works as a taxidermist. The rest of the book flits between the play that Henry #2 has written which is about a donkey called Beatrice and a howler monkey called Virgil who live on a striped shirt, and the two Henry's meeting to discuss the play.

I have to be honest that if I hadn't loved Life of Pi so much I'm not sure that I would have wanted to carry on reading after the first 50 pages. I say wouldn't have wanted to, but even so I probably would have as I felt strangely compelled to keep reading. The play with the animals was a very obvious metaphor for the holocaust and there were times when I felt like I was being beaten over the head with them. The ending too: I can't decide whether I was being blatantly manipulated or whether Martel has just done a really good job of making me feel what the holocaust was ultimately all about - I was heartbroken at the end, both with the ending of the play and with the Games for Gustav which was a series of "Sophie's choice"-like questions about what would you do in this situation?

I think that this is possibly the first time I have been so unsure how to score a book. It certainly wasn't a book I necessarily enjoyed but was it a good book? I really don't know whether it's complete trash or absolute genius. Having said that, I do still keep thinking about it.
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on 28 July 2010
Free copies of this book has been sent out by the publisher to many book clubs, so my book club leader told us. The response from the 8 of us was resoundingly negative. You can easily substitute Henry, the main character who, after a first award winning novel, fails to come up to grade with his second book. His publishers scoff at his first attempt and he moves away to 'find himself' or some such thing. The secondary character (also called Henry?) quotes heavily from another book (now out of copyright) in his 'play' about Beatrice and Virgil. The ending gave us more questions than answers as it rips you away from the story that is only just starting to develop and off on a tangent.

The book, thankfully, is short. My favourite books are the ones that make me stay up in the early hours because i can't drag myself away from the pages. This was not that sort of book. Let's hope that putting a sticker on the front refering to the Life of Pi, will lead people to read it, as the content won't. We also noted that the back cover which details all the fabulous things reviewers have said sneakily refers, not to this story, but to Pi.
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I rarely review books, confining myself to classical music but as soon as I'd finished this I felt compelled to register my vote. Like many a previous reader and reviewer, the only reason I a) bought this book, b) persevered with reading it was because I had read, taught, studied and admired "Life of Pi". I have never encountered such a dour, pointless, tedious farrago of nonsensical ideas in my life; the novel is all the more incomprehensible for being written by such a talented author. A previous reviewer has it right by characterising the book as 95% boring and 5% shocking; the grinding, right-on relevance of the message is appreciable only "retrospectively" after you have been repulsed and shocked by the moments of graphic brutality, hideous cruelty and gratuitous violence. Yes; of course I know that is what typified the Holocaust and that evil is inevitably banal compared with the transcendence of goodness - but the reiteration of wickedness and banality does not a work of art - or indeed a tolerable novel - make.

Even worse is the author's ultimate insistence on hitting you over the head with the "message". Rather than being content with providing an intelligent reader with subtle clues, towards the end Martel elaborates a literal, clodhopping explanation of how to decode the novel. We get it, OK? The earnestness with which he does so just about negates any appreciation I might have had for his craft.

Certain critics and pseuds are falling over themselves to hail this as a profound masterpiece; I can only suggest that you obtain a copy - for heaven's sake don't waste money on it as I did - and read for yourself if you suspect me of poor judgement, prejudice or ignorance. I assure you I wanted to like the book, having been so impressed by "Pi". Try, by all means - but don't say I didn't warn you.
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on 3 May 2011
I find some of the negative reviews of this book quite surprising, especially the people who said it is not an easy read. I found that it was a real page turner and I read it in a couple of days. I liked the several different texts / stories within the main story of Beatrice and Virgil, a technique which is often employed by Paul Auster who is one of my favourite writers. I wouldn't say Beatrice and Virgil is as good as Life of Pie but I did actually find B and V easier to read from the onset (I found that it took me a while to get into Pi before it became unputdownable!). When I first saw the animals on the book cover I thought Martel may just be cashing in on the success of Life of Pie, and maybe that was Martel's initial reason for choosing to use animal characters again, however I must say that this book is an altogether different beast (with beast being the operative word). I think Martel achieved what he set out to do in respect of using animal characters instead of humans, in that I think it added to the horror of the ending of Beatrice's and Virgil's story (the play) which I found really quite harrowing and shocking, probably more so than if Martel had used human characters in a more straight-forward holocaust novel (which there are of course so many of already). I felt genuinely upset after reading this book and actually contemplated skipping some scenes because they were so distressing. There was the occasional humorous moment too, especially when Henry's wife makes a "Winnie the Pooh meets the holocaust" comment (it's rare that a book has me in hysterics!). On the whole I found B and V enjoyable and interesting and the type of novel that will no doubt play on my mind for some time.
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on 24 October 2011
I bought this having read (and loved) Martel's 'Life of Pi' hoping it would be equally magical. What a contrast it was! The graphic animal violence was sickening and unecessary and the story was dull if not just plain weird. There arent many books I can honestly say I hate, but this was just horrible. It was so sick and twisted that when it came to the end I just wanted to get rid of it!
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on 8 July 2016
Horrifying, appalling. Should come with a warning "XXX" sticker. Why can't books come with a grading like films and TV programmes?! I bought this book for my 10 year old CHILD! Donkey, monkey and with the blurb on the back saying "enormously loveable novel is suffused with wonder" and "amusing asides" - what could go wrong?! It takes a sick imagination to come up with such an graphic description of donkey torture and the detailed and macabre skinning of a fox. I don't care if the idea IS to remind us about the Holocaust. And the trouble is that when since it is possible to take in the text of a page pretty much in one go, the horrifying images are delivered straight to your brain before you can manage the turn the page! There is plenty of woe in the world without every modern writer being DETERMINED to waterboard your literary mind as well.
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on 15 June 2011
I absolutely loved this book. I have not read life of Pi, but it will be the next book I read. I cant really understand how you could not get this book as some reviewers have said, there really is nothing to get. I was completely immersed by the authors writing style from the first page and found myself drawn in completely. I found the descriptions of the animals, the pear and the shirt all equally delightful. The juxtaposing of the animals innocent enjoyment of the minutia of things around them with the story of the Holocaust was extremely powerful in bringing out the horror of the laid back violence. In short if you love animals like i do and you are sensitive to the emotions of others you will be deeply touched by this book. I read the final pages with the games for Gustav through a flood of tears. Loved it , loved it , ,loved it .
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on 30 July 2010
I feel the weight of each day since the launch of Life of Pi burdening its author with the moribund desire to produce some kind of follow-up, to prove he is not a one hit wonder (ignoring the very good autobiographical novel 'self'). Unfortunately there is only a shadow of the former genius stalking this book. In fact it would have been better as a quickly published novella or short story rather than in its current guise as an animal based sequel to life of Pi. The use of animals was original in Life of Pi but now seems excessively laboured.

The art of fiction is to imagine and go beyond the author's own personal life. I was instantly depressed when i realized the first 40 pages are just a summary of Yann Martel's life post-life of pi.

I was at least hoping for some wordcraft, like the metaphors which used to bejewel every sentence in his previous works.

At the end of the day its a boring and overworked novella which i finished reading for the sake of completion. It feels as if the author has been under massive pressure to create a sequel novel, yet has great self-doubt about the validity of any storyline, hence has become fixated on this bizarre book which he had conceived many years ago. At the same time the publishers seem aware of the books weakness but equally underpressure to get something out. The whole thing is a tragedy and waste of talent. I think if he ever writes another novel he should worry less about creating some philosophical artwork and just write rapidly with enjoyment, to unlock his latent talent.
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VINE VOICEon 1 July 2010
I am sorry to say that I just didn't get Beatrice and Virgil. Apart from the lack of plot mentioned by another reviewer there is far too much description for such a short novel. Early on there is a long description of what constitutes a 'flip' book as this is the format the protagonist wants to use for his novel/essay. Later Martel uses up about a page descibing a stuffed Okapi, OK the Okapi is an unusual animal but a few words would have sufficed to have the reader thinking 'Oh yes. I've seen one of those in a book/at the zoo'. However I think the biggest exercise in padding is that about 7 pages is filled with reproducing a short story by Gustave Flauberte, yes, the relevance of this was sort of justified and perhaps it could have worked in a novel of around 500 pages.

The protagonist is married but we know virtually nothing about her apart from the fact that she is prepared to pack up and move at a moments notice because Henry decides that is what he wants to do. I was also puzzled about the fact that Martel gives the taxidermist the name Henry, which means that everytime the 2nd Henry is mentioned he is referrered to as the taxidermist. OK, I never thought it was his real name but it is irritating with the extended dialogue between the 2 characters. Perhaps Martel is suggesting that they are in some way the same person as the taxidermist is writing a rather bizarre and tedious play about animals, a donkey and howler monkey, which is also about the holocaust, the subject of Henry's novel/essay. The fate of Henry's cat and dog perhaps also has some holocaust analogy.

Take away the extended descriptions, the reproduction of the short story and long explanation of taxidermy and there is just about enough left for a short story. I enjoy quirky, surreal and strange novels and I can understand what the author was trying to do but unfortunately for me at least this one just didn't work.
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