Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil

Beatrice & VirgilBeatrice & Virgil
Yann Martel
PR9299 M376B 2010 Central Library

Henry L’Hôte writes a best-selling book and then gives up writing after a setback to his next novel. He moves to a city in another country with his wife, takes up a job and indulges in new hobbies. One day, he receives a package containing excerpts from a play, and decides to meet up with the writer who is asking for help. The writer turns out to be a reticent taxidermist suffering from writer’s block. The characters in his play are a donkey and a howler monkey (Beatrice and Virgil), and both exist as stuffed animals in the taxidermist’s shop. Intrigued by the characters and feeling empathetic, Henry begins to meet up with the taxidermist. As he reads more excerpts from the play, he discerns allusions to the holocaust, although the taxidermist does not explicitly mention that even in their discussions.

Beatrice and Virgil is a short and meandering novel. The climax, which appears towards the end of the book, came as a surprise to me. At times lyrical and haunting, the story demonstrates Martel’s masterful control of the English language. His descriptions of some everyday things ensure that I will never look at them the same way again. However, reviews on the Internet seem to be polarized between those who loved it and those who clearly didn’t. My comments are in general positive, though I’ve not read Martel’s Man Booker Prize winning The Life of Pi, and hence did not have any stratospheric expectations for this book. What bothers me, though, are questions that remain unanswered: why must the protagonist (Henry) and the taxidermist share the same name? Similarly, Henry’s son is named Theo, as is Martel’s own. Some critics see this novel as a memoir in thin disguise. You may well have to read this book and decide for yourself!

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