Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice & Virgil, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010
Beatrice & Virgil, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010

Sometimes you reach the end of a book and you have to go into the other room and simply sit and stare at your sleeping baby for a few minutes.

Yann Martel is, of course, best known as the author of The Life of Pi. A book that powerful is a hard act to follow and while Beatrice & Virgil doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it nonetheless packs its own punches.

The title characters are two taxidermied animals – a donkey and a howler monkey. Our protagonist is Henry. Henry is a very successful author who has just spent five years writing his second book. It’s an unusual fiction/essay combo about the Holocaust and when he presents it to his publishers they tell him it’s unpublishable. Henry argues this but eventually gives in and instead he and his wife move to a new city where Henry works in a chocolate shop, acts in an amateur theatre group, and awaits the birth of his firstborn. Clearly, Henry is a prototype of the author himself, who also has a son named Theo and wrote a book about the Holocaust that was deemed unpublishable.

When Henry receives a letter and a portion of a play from a reader also named Henry, he ends up meeting this other Henry in person. The other Henry is in his eighties and runs a taxidermy shop. He is writing a play about Beatrice and Virgil, who are taxidermied animals in his shop. The play is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, involving the animals talking and not doing much. The taxidermist wants Henry’s help but is reluctant to answer questions, about either himself or the play. Henry begins to understand that the play is about the Holocaust. But it isn’t talking about the Holocaust in a way you might expect and his final realization of the truth of the situation has serious repercussions.

While Henry makes a number of choices that I wouldn’t make (like hanging around a taxidermy shop), Martel unfolds the plot carefully and steadily so that Henry’s actions are easy to understand. Henry is a normal, likeable enough guy, caught up in a strange situation. To some extent, the thing he is most guilty of is an inability to be rude. On the other hand, the taxidermist seems almost unreal. We learn very little about him though his actions and his personality are mostly off-putting. When Henry’s wife meets him, she deems the taxidermist creepy and I had to agree. But it’s a fascinating type of creepy and, like Henry, the reader wants to know more.

Where the novel falters is in long asides and descriptions. Particularly pages long details about taxidermy. There were several spots that I found myself skimming over and the book is really not that long. At the same time, though the play within the novel is fascinating and becomes more interesting as we understand more of its significance, some of its scenes drag on too long. The ending however, will get you in the gut. I found it hard to read with just how intense it got but that’s clearly Martel’s intention.

Having heard Beatrice & Virgil described as a disappointing follow-up, I was pleasantly surprised by it. If you’re expecting a book as powerful and well-articulated as Life of Pi this isn’t it but Martel is clearly an excellent writer.

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