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121 of 142 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Holocaust in a suitcase
Coming in to this slight novel--barely more than a novella--all I knew was that it was Yann Martel's "Holocaust allegory," and that it had animal characters. Those animals are the eponymous Beatrice (a donkey) and Virgil (a howler monkey) but they're actually characters in a play within the novel. Let me back up...

The central character of Beatrice and Virgil...
Published on March 15, 2010 by Susan Tunis

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125 of 149 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Worth the Emotional Toll
Every time I interact with a work of art that deals with the Holocaust -- be it a film, documentary, novel, painting, photomontage -- I am left traumatized, exhausted, and drained of emotion. Sometimes it takes me days to recover. When faced with yet another major artistic work on the Holocaust, I always pause and ask myself if I want to go through that emotional...
Published on April 20, 2010 by B. Case


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121 of 142 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Holocaust in a suitcase, March 15, 2010
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Coming in to this slight novel--barely more than a novella--all I knew was that it was Yann Martel's "Holocaust allegory," and that it had animal characters. Those animals are the eponymous Beatrice (a donkey) and Virgil (a howler monkey) but they're actually characters in a play within the novel. Let me back up...

The central character of Beatrice and Virgil is a novelist named Henry. Henry has written a very successful book that featured animals as characters. Henry's career, in short, is remarkably similar to that of Yann Martel. The beginning of the novel describes his travails while attempting to publish a follow up to his very successful book. Henry, who is not Jewish, wants to write about the Holocaust. He has noticed that almost all Holocaust fiction is in the style of historical realism. Henry believes there are other ways to have this dialogue, to tell this story. "Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists. To take just three well-known instances of artful witness: Orwell with Animal Farm, Camus with The Plague, Picasso with Guernica. In each case, the artist had taken a vast, sprawling tragedy, had found its heart and had represented it in a non-literal and compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was packed into a suitcase. Art as suitcase, light, portable and essential--was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe's Jews?"

It is this that Henry attempts, but fails, to write. Despite his exalted stature, he is told repeatedly that his book is unpublishable. At this point, sick of publishing and completely blocked, Henry decides to pursue other interests. He and his wife move to an unnamed major city in another county. He takes music lessons, acts in plays, and even waits on customers in a chocolatería. He's happy. And it's a pleasure to read about Henry. Sure, he's rich, talented, and free, but at heart he's an everyman and so darn likable.

Eventually, a series of events leads Henry to an acquaintance with a taxidermist, also coincidentally (?) named Henry. In most ways Henry the taxidermist is completely unlike Henry the novelist. He's older, dour, and very, very serious. But he, too, is a frustrated writer. He has been struggling for years on a play about Beatrice and Virgil. The characters are real in his mind, as they are literally two stuffed animals in his shop. Gradually Henry the novelist begins collaborating on the play, and sections of the play's text make up large portions of the novel. And the text is... well, I swear it sounds like Samuel Beckett wrote it. Beatrice and Virgil may as well have been renamed Vladimir and Estragon. Truly, if you have any appreciation of that sort of thing, it's an absolute joy to read.

And that's the thing: This light, short novel is a compelling and deceptively simple read. Other than novelist Henry's unpublished work, there's no further talk of the Holocaust until more than halfway through the novel. There's something going on a bit under the surface, but you can't really put your finger on it. And then novelist Henry says to his wife, "It's all quite fanciful, yet there are elements that remind me, well, that remind me of the Holocaust." She accuses him of seeing the Holocaust everywhere, and that's that. Mr. Martel's fanciful story of the novelist and the taxidermist and the donkey and the monkey continues. And slowly, gently, the real story being told becomes more and more self-evident. By the time I reached the end, I was well and truly chilled, with goosebumps breaking out all over.

Where the fictional Henry failed, Yann Martel has succeeded. It's a stealth allegory, and as I stated earlier, it's deceptively simple. Deceptive, because there's actually SO much going on in this little novel. There are cultural, literary, historic, and religious references. I was actually busy googling things as I read and there was much food for thought. It seems almost ridiculous to say this about another Yann Martel novel, but you want to read this with a friend or a book group. By the time you're done, there is so much you'll want to talk through and discuss. Highly, highly, highly recommended!
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125 of 149 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Worth the Emotional Toll, April 20, 2010
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Every time I interact with a work of art that deals with the Holocaust -- be it a film, documentary, novel, painting, photomontage -- I am left traumatized, exhausted, and drained of emotion. Sometimes it takes me days to recover. When faced with yet another major artistic work on the Holocaust, I always pause and ask myself if I want to go through that emotional rollercoaster again. Will this work of art help me better understand? Will it bring me closer to the truth? Is this new work of art worth the pain?

Unfortunately, Yann Martel's new Holocaust novel, "Beatrice and Virgil," is not worth it.

In many ways it is an arresting work that pulled me inside and kept me compulsively reading. It beguiled. It charmed. It triggered an abundance of tantalizing intellectual associations. But, it is a very odd book: an absurdist allegorical play with animal characters, contained within a thinly disguised memoir, enveloped within an odd fictional mystery, and the whole work is interlaced with fascinating, obtuse, intellectual essays. The writing is at times utterly mesmerizing and brilliant; at other times, it is downright boring. Again and again, the book begs the reader to discover where this is all leading. And then finally, in the last 30 pages or so, the reader is hit over the head with an emotional sledgehammer so effectively that the pain of this Holocaust encounter put me in a state of shock. Frankly, I felt manipulated and conned.

So, if this appeals to you, go ahead and read it. For those that loved "Life of Pi," this is nothing like that book. The novel is odd and wonderful, but it also misses the mark. I will not recommend it to my friends, and it is not a work that I would enjoy discussing with a book club.
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Could be more than five, or fewer, April 11, 2010
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Thomas F. Dillingham (Columbia, Missouri USA) - See all my reviews
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Yann Martel's new novel deserves much more thorough and lengthy discussion than is possible in a brief Amazon review. The complexity and high ambition of the novel are impressive, almost overwhelming. At the same time, its flaws must be recognized, and the serious questions it raises (but may not confront satisfactorily) must be acknowledged.

Martel here attempts a direct challenge to the famous remark by Theodor Adorno (to paraphrase--after Auschwitz, poetry is no longer possible) by writing a work of fiction about the Holocaust, even though the author is not himself a Holocaust survivor. I had a colleague who taught "literature of the Holocaust," but always refused to include any fictional narratives--only factual, truthful, survivors' narratives were allowed in his course. He felt the reality of the Holocaust was such that no fiction could convey it and no writer of fiction had the moral right to attempt it. Martel does not so much contradict that view as explore its implications in the intricate self-reflexive novel he has created. His narrator, Henry, has written a novel the characters of which are animals--a work received favorably enough to make him financially secure--but he is "blocked" since his more recent effort--a novel about the Holocaust that he wants to be published in tandem with an essay on the subject. His editors have concluded that the work is umpublishable because it would never sell--people would not understand what it was.

This Henry receives a manuscript from another Henry, a mysterious man who makes his living as a taxidermist and has written a play--Beatrice and Virgil--in which two animal characters, a howler monkey and a donkey, contemplate the fate of life on earth following some (at first) unexplained calamity. Excerpts from the play appear at intervals throughout the novel, not in the actual order they would appear in the play, but as the taxidermist chooses to offer them; as a result, we gradually learn the nature of the story of Beatrice and Virgil, but not in chronological order. The taxidermist has also provided (perhaps as a kind of predecessor work) a copy of Flaubert's "Julien l'Hopitalier." When Henry the first author visits the taxidermist, a series of encounters and disturbing revelations ensue, all forcing Henry to confront and attempt to understand his relationship to this play--which reads very much like one of Samuel Beckett's major works--Endgame, most obviously, and Waiting for Godot, as well, as played by, however, two quite innocent animals. At the same time, Henry the author is rehearsing his role in the classic play, Nathan the Wise.

As is obvious, this is a novel rich in allusions and connections with other works of literature. It becomes increasingly clear that the taxidermist is also, symbolically, confronting the facts of the Holocaust through his beautiful and deeply sad, emotionally wrenching, portrayal of the two animals confronting their loneliness, isolation, rejection, mortality.

I can imagine some negative responses to this work--some who might find it too precious, too "intellectual," and especially in its final pages, perhaps too manipulative. The questions about its effectiveness are legitimate--I felt for a while at the end that I was unsatisfied, disappointed that it had not been more carefully and fully developed through its final pages. But I also felt that my disappointment was partly that I was wishing it were still going on.

I don't want to provide any further details about the ways the story unfolds. I would want to encourage readers to encounter it on their own. Its richness and fascination will certainly carry any reader along, and I feel that most readers will find themselves both moved and stirred up by the implications, the challenging questions, of this intense and beautiful work.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unspeakably, bafflingly poor, July 27, 2011
This review is from: Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel (Paperback)
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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54 of 69 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dissecting the Pear, April 16, 2010
I literally just finished Yann Martel's new book Beatrice and Virgil (B&V for brevity's sake) about 10 minutes ago. I am shaken with rage as the book is one of the most hateful and ghastly jumble of horrors I have ever finished. At least it is mercifully short. In fact, it is so short, it can hardly be called more than just a long short story. The main story clocks in under 200 pages, there is tons of white space and the last 8 pages are "games" that feel lifted from works about the Holocaust ranging from Roman Polanski's The Pianist to Sophie's Choice.

I read Life of Pi when it first came out and then again last week. It will always stand as one of the best books of my reading life.

Beatrice and Virgil is a jumble: a writer who's book has just been rejected, a play that is occasionally exquisitely written that vibrates with beauty and life, a coming-to-terms with the Holocaust, the revealing of a Nazi war criminal who somehow escaped detection who is allowed to live a silent life of peace, a hungry donkey and the scream of a Howler monkey.

But what does it mean? I don't know. I think Mr. Martel had terrible writer's block after Pi (the dreaded curse of the sophomore book, even though Pi is really his second novel) and he wants to write about the Holocaust in a new way. But he overreaches. And the book references waaaay too many other works of literature. Many are mentioned by other reviewers, and even Mr. Martel quotes a story by Flaubert in long sentences, so it is hard to really even hear Martel's own voice. B&V reminds me so much of Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers in that it is so short, has a bloody graphic ending that comes out of nowhere and takes place in an anonymous European city.

When it does shine through it is lovely, especially early in the book (read the 3 page description of a pear) during the play that comes to him in bits and pieces by a struggling writer (also with writer's block) clothed as a taxidermist. Both protagonists are named Henry, but usually the elder taxidermist is simply called "the taxidermist". His wife is immediately repulsed by him, the waiters down the street treat him like a leper and he gives everyone except Henry extreme cases of the willies. Henry sees brilliance in the taxidermist's play and wants to shepherd it. But the terse, oblique, removed and socially awkward taxidermist is afraid that Henry will steal his material... and as a reader, the deeper we got into the play, the less I wanted to see it.

In Pi we are caught up in moments of graphic animal violence, but it makes sense within that story and is balanced out by deep insights into spirituality. In B&V the graphic animal violence does nothing to serve the story, except to try to give a new voice to the Holocaust and it simply doesn't work. I don't want or need Martel to write a Pi sequel. But this book is so abstract and cluttered with images that it feels like Martel cut up a bunch of better books on the subject, threw the pieces up in the air, gathered them up in random order, added a talking donkey and a moneky and barfed them out in novella form. In the end, B&V was gigantic disappointment for me.

Maybe I should try to digest the book before immediately reviewing it, but I need a shower because it made me feel dirty. 1/5 stars.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This book is an abortion., June 2, 2010
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My opinion has been expressed by the many negative reviews. Firstly, Life of Pi was one of my all time favorite books and I was beyond thrilled to read his next work. I heard Martel interviewed by the deranged genius Michael Silverblatt at a book festival and Martel's comments about the book's intentions were thrilling. How does one talk about the Holocaust? Make sense of it? Then I read the book. I could write pages about how much this book hurt. How it seared images into my brain that I don't want there. And how there was no compensation with literary merit...intriguing characters, dialog, images, resolution. As I try to think of a comparison, all that comes to mind are the later novels of Tom Wolfe that are bereft of sympathetic characters. But Wolfe is so funny and true and his characters read more like caricatures so of course they have no redeeming qualities. But reading Virgil and Beatrice was like placing my hand on a hot stove for no good reason whatsoever. I'm left unamused and unenlightened. Just burned.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Deserves Contemplation, March 1, 2011
My initial instinct when I sat down to write this review, was to blast Yann Martel. Upon finishing Beatrice & Virgil, I was appalled. I did not know that Beatrice & Virgil was a Holocaust allegory, so I was unprepared for the story that was about to unfold. Anyone thinking about reading this book should have an open mind, and prepare themselves to be shocked-- or at the very least, uncomfortable.

To briefly summarize the plot, Henry is a previously successful author who has just had his latest book idea rejected by his editor. He takes a break from writing, but is drawn in by one of his readers who asks Henry to help finish his play. Although Henry has an uneasy feeling about the humourless man, he is intrigued by the characters in the play; a donkey named Beatrice, and a howler monkey named Virgil. Eventually Henry makes a horrifying discovery.

I applaud Martel for *attempting* to represent the Holocaust in a new way. The Holocaust is an event that needs to be remembered and written about. I'm just not sure if Martel's method was appropriate. Can an allegory, an extended metaphor, effectively convey the suffering that thousands of people experienced? In my opinion, no. Not even close. The scream of a howler monkey is not enough to represent the anguish of all those people. The stubborness and determination of a donkey is not enough to represent their perserverance in the face of hardship. And (WARNING: *SPOILER* AHEAD) the euthanization of a rabid dog CAN NOT be used as a substitute for the thousands of people that died in gas chambers.

I wanted to give this book one star. The first three quarters of the book rambled through lengthy prose and little action. I struggled to see where the plot was going, and how everything would tie together. The last quarter of the book reached out of the page and slapped me in the face. As you see, I've given it three stars. Although I would be reluctant to recommend this book to a friend, it did make me think long and hard. I was not able to dismiss it completely, which means it was worth the read after all.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ramble on, June 4, 2010
Ok, granted that "Life of Pi" was a phenomenal success selling millions, winning all the awards, it's one hell of a book to follow. I wasn't expecting Martel's next book to be anything approaching the level of success "Pi" got but I thought he'd still produce an interesting book. As it happens, 9 years passed before we saw a follow up. 9 years for a dull 200 page book about the Holocaust. Dear me. Well what went wrong?

First off, the plot. There isn't one. The first 30 pages are autobiographical where we hear what Martel got up to in the wake of "Pi" (though this is never stated of course and he names himself "Henry" instead of "Yann"). We hear about how he spent 5 years writing a novel and essay about the Holocaust that the publisher didn't want because it was all over the place. Then Martel, sorry "Henry", moves to an unnamed city where he gives up writing. He meets a weird taxidermist who reads him his boring play concerning a donkey called Beatrice and a monkey called Virgil. Pages and pages of the play are devoted to the description of a pear, then a banana. That's right. Then a dull essay on the nature of taxidermy. Then more pages of a play. It's about page 150 out of 200 that we start hearing about the Holocaust from the donkey and then there's a melodramatic ending that's totally idiotic followed by 12 questions about the Holocaust. The end.

Martel's idea seems to be that we don't have a literature, an art, concerning the Holocaust. That the Holocaust isn't depicted in great art like Picasso's Guernica, Orwell's Animal Farm, etc. and that this needs to change. He does mention Maus by Art Spiegelman which frames the Holocaust with the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice but then says that this isn't enough. Well, Martel's answer is a donkey and a monkey. How is this any different from Spiegelman's depiction? And when it comes to the Holocaust discussion, he chooses to reel off details anyone who's read anything about the event will be familiar with. The torture, the fear, the horror, the death, the camps, etc. Martel proves that he fails at his own attempt at depicting the Holocaust through art by creating an artless book.

The book is rambling, disjointed, boring at many moments, and ultimately too forgettable. Martel doesn't quite know how to pull off his ideas and we're left with simple characters, annoying discourses, and 2 animal characters we never like because they're too precious. Let's talk about pears and dance! Let's not. What would be more interesting would be why Martel has spent the last 9 years obsessing about the Holocaust but we never find out. We also don't see the Holocaust any differently than before and "Beatrice and Virgil" is just one of many unsuccessful books to discuss this tragedy.

It's a failed experiment, an utterly dislikable book that I felt even the author didn't quite believe in, and is just disappointing. "Life of Pi" was genius, possibly the best novel of the '00s, but the followup is plain crap. Hopefully the next one will be written sooner and be more focused.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 5 stars and one big question mark, April 13, 2010
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What is Beatrice And Virgil about?

The question of "about-ness" is asked more than once in Yann Martel's latest novel. In reference to the main character Henry, "What is this book about?" is asked of his latest novel regarding the Holocaust. When Henry's publishers and editors don't "get" his work, he gives up writing for a time, moves to a big city with his wife, adopts a dog and cat, gets his wife pregnant, and meets another Henry; a taxidermist writing a play. In this play, the taxidermist has written about a donkey and a monkey, but they represent more than two animals. In Beatrice And Virgil, Martel has written about genocide, the Holocaust, cruelty, marriage, life, death, Flaubert, talking animals, and the interpretation of art. "It's all quite fanciful..." as Henry says.

It's hard to explain, or describe this work, and I think, perhaps, that's the whole point. Martel's last book was published many years ago, as is the case with his character Henry. His first book was about animals, likewise with Henry. So many themes resonate in Beatrice And Virgil that my head is spinning and I'm wondering, even as Henry is asked, what is this book about?

If I took the strange otherworldlyness of Milan Kundera's Immortality and meshed it with the dark psychological twistedness of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, and then made the outcome pear-shaped, that is the general tone of Beatrice And Virgil. Surprisingly violent, a bit disturbing, ultimately strange and disquieting. I think I hate it... but I also think I like it... or at least respect it for whatever IT is.

This book was a surprise. From the first page I thought I would love it. Martel's prose-style writing is magical and seductive. I thought, "I wish I could write like this." And then the bizarre plot came into focus and I felt as though I was watching something disturbing that I couldn't turn away from. Like I was in a dream, trying to scream, and no sound was coming out. Eyebrows furrowed, head scratched, questions raised, and little answers given. Even now, having just finished the book recently, I've no idea what I just read. Can't recall the ending, because there isn't one. And yet, I know it was good.

Some people are going to love this book, it will be memorialized as a truly unique piece of written work. Other people will hate it, will say Martel's self-indulgence is over the top and it's all too dramatic. Still others will, like me, have little idea what they've got themselves into. They will wonder, "I thought this was a book about a donkey and a monkey?" They might even put it down if they haven't been educated with an appreciation of literature. But if they keep on reading, if they get to the end that isn't an end, and set it down completed, they will have learned or dislearned something, and it will have changed them, as all books should.

5 stars and one big question mark.

(I received this book from the publisher for review)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A novel examination of the horrors of the Holocaust, March 8, 2010
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`Beatrice and Virgil' is a hard novel to describe for the very reasons that Martel himself states in the book - it explores the Holocaust in a new and unusual way. Most accepted literature about the Holocaust is based on true History: memoirs by survivors, diaries of the victims and, even when fiction tackles the topic, it sticks with historical facts.

"Beatrice and Virgil" begins with Henry, our protagonist, and his attempt to bring to publication his next great novel. Having achieved fame with a novel that used animals to tell an allegorical tale, Henry now wants to turn his attention to the Holocaust. However, his attempt to write about it in a new way, is torn apart by his publishers and he retreats from writing in general.

Then Henry gets a letter from another `Henry', who sends him a fairly barbaric story by Flaubert (available at gutenberg.org) and a request/demand for help. The sender is a reclusive taxidermist who is writing a play that does what Henry had wanted to do with his story - represent the Holocaust allegorically in a story about animals - reminiscent of how Animal Farm depicted Communism.

With the success of `Life of Pi' Martel must have been very aware that his second novel would be judged in comparison to his first one. However, while the use of animals is the same this novel is quite different. The first half is an examination of Art and Henry's philosophy about writing. Once Henry meets the taxidermist the story moves over into a more Pi-like atmosphere where the reader knows that there is more going on than what is written on the page.

There are very obvious parallels between Henry and the author - both are Canadian, both have become famous with books about animals as characters and both have children named Theo!! There are many more for the reader to find.

I would say that this book is about assumptions and the interpretations of silence, or of the inability to speak of what is unspeakable. The taxidermist does not communicate well in his conversations with Henry. It is only from his writing and Flaubert's essay that Henry decides that the man is fascinated with violence - he is writing about murder, he is interested in the sheer number of animals murdered in Flaubert's story, he writes that he became a taxidermist to see if something could be saved once it had been killed - to bear witness. At the end of the book, Henry makes a huge assumption about who the taxidermist actually is and there is certainly enough of a shock to make the reader return to the earlier pages to search for clues.

There is no pat ending and, in that too, the book does resemble `Life of Pi.' You won't find gas chambers and crematoria in these pages but you will find fear and violence and the unfathomable hatred that one group can have for another.It is a harrowing read but, in the end, a successful allegorical representation of the Holocaust and its impact on people, even 60 years after the fact.
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Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel
Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel by Yann Martel (Paperback - February 22, 2011)
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