Avoiding this novel for a decade because it was about a boy in a lifeboat adrift with a tiger seems perfectly reasonable: in much the same way as you can obviously judge a book by its cover, you can clearly decide whether you want to read one based on its premise. This was set up to be classic magic realist claptrap: 1) there would be much rambling spiritual musing; 2) the whole thing would go nowhere; and 3) the tiger would obviously talk.
Actually: 1) we do indeed get both barrels from three major world religions but this serves to pin the book’s world successfully in place; 2) the protagonist, Pi, does get somewhere: from shipwreck to safety after 200 days afloat; and 3) the tiger does talk, but this is reasonable evidence of Pi’s creeping insanity.
When it comes to describing madness after abandonment at sea, William Golding’s Pincher Martin* takes some beating: ‘A segment of storm dropped out like a dead leaf and there was a gap that joined sea and sky through the horizon…A valley of nothing opened up through Safety Rock…The sea twisted and disappeared.’ Real Book of Revelation stuff. Anyway, Pi’s mental disintegration’s only slightly less disturbing.
There is unrelenting realism in Life Of Pi – forensic detail of how a tiger, zebra, orangutan and hyena despatch, or are despatched by, one another, for example – and in-depth looks at life raft survival craft, botany, zoology and lion (well, tiger) -taming.
There are some good jokes: the tiger is called Richard Parker, his name swapped due to an administrative error with that of the hunter who killed its mother. And at one key point there is even a carnivorous island, which is oddly horrific although pfiesteria might explain it. (I say ‘might’, and devotees of cast-iron explanations for everything would have given up long before this anyway).
The alternative version of his voyage which Pi himself relates at the close is at once more realistic and more appalling – which is why it’s obviously not true. Boy, tiger, lifeboat, philosophy is the way to go: rather against the odds given the circumstances, the attention to detail has created its own reality.
*(In fact Pincher, although we don’t know it until the final line of the novel, is dead before his narrative even starts – a device which is best left to experts like Golding or Ambrose Bierce and strictly to be avoided by sixth formers in particular).