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Metaphors in Beatrice try a bit too hard

‘Beatrice and Virgil’
By: Yann Martel
Price: $24 (hardcover)
Rating:Three out of five bookmarks)

You may have heard the expression "there are only 1,001 stories in the world to tell." So how does one take a topic that seems to have been covered on every front and make it unexpected and original?

Well, one could always throw in the philosophical conversations of a monkey and a donkey.

Yann Martel, the author of the prize-winning novel "Life of Pi," has released his latest book, "Beatrice and Virgil." It follows the story of a writer named Henry who, after gaining much success with his first book, has trouble pitching his second novel idea to publishers. Henry gives up on writing for a while to rediscover himself by moving to a new town with his wife and pets. One day, he is sent a peculiar letter from a taxidermist who writes that he needs Henry’s help — help with what, he doesn’t mention. Curious, Henry chooses to track down the taxidermist, and thus sparks an unusual creative partnership that leads him into unfamiliar and unsettling territory, while at the same time draws him into the adventures shared between a donkey and a howler monkey, respectively named Beatrice and Virgil.

I imagine some of this novel is analogous to circumstances or emotions that Martel has experienced, given that the main character, like him, is also an author who has had an internationally acclaimed novel. He spends a good deal of timing describing the difficulty an author has trying to get others to understand his viewpoint, as well as an author’s trouble of being able to understand another artist’s view and ideas. That might be the ultimate purpose of the novel — Martel is attempting to have the reader understand, through his eyes, what it is like to be a writer.

The story of Beatrice and Virgil is gradually revealed as snippets from a play, written in a "Waiting for Godot"-esque manner, almost like a parody of Beckett’s work. Beatrice and Virgil turn out to be symbolic for something far darker than Henry realizes, and it is what brings the novel full circle when Henry is pitching why his "artful metaphor" of a factual, historical event would sell.

While the approach is clever, I felt as if the author was smacking me in the head by the end, saying, "Did you get that? See how this all tied together? I am in fact trying to make a metaphor about this subject by having the characters make metaphors about this same subject."

This story is an allegory with allegories within it.

Honestly, I wish the novel had been more about its title characters. Yes, I wish the book had been about a monkey and a donkey who talk about faith, fruit, humanity and their world’s lack of all three. I felt like the story about Henry and the taxidermist was distracting me from what was a far more intriguing story going on with the animals. Although maybe Martel intended that as well, since the whole point of the novel was about the effectiveness of allegories in captivating the reader to look at a well-known event in a different way. Maybe his approach worked too well.

Overall, it felt like the author was trying too hard to lead the reader in a certain direction and to follow a specific line of thinking, when a novel should give the impression that readers are effortlessly enjoying an unplanned journey of constant discovery.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.