Whimsy takes a deadly serious turn in a novel that will enchant some readers and exasperate others.
The Canadian author’s previous novel (Life of Pi, 2001) won the Man Booker Prize, became a critically lauded bestseller and made legions of fans eager for a follow-up. Here it is, a meta-fictional shell game about a novelist who has experienced the same sort of success as Martel by writing a similar sort of animal-filled book, who attempts a follow-up (about the Holocaust) that mixes fact and fiction in a manner that advance readers find unsatisfying and who thus stops writing. His story reads something like a fable, since for the longest time the protagonist has only one name, Henry, and he and his wife move to a city that remains unidentified, though the narrative suggests it could be one of many. Instead of writing, Henry becomes involved with a chocolate shop and a theater troupe, and then he receives a package from a reader. The most accommodating bestselling author ever, Henry answers all his mail and goes to great lengths to track down the sender of this package, which contains a short story by Flaubert, a play with two characters—the title characters of this novel—and a plea for help. Henry’s quest leads him to a mysterious taxidermist, also named Henry, whose shop seems to contain “all of creation stuffed into one large room,” and who plies his trade in homage to Flaubert—“to bear witness.” Uh-oh, allegory alert! Like a Russian doll, the novel contains parables within parables, as the play’s Beatrice and Virgil (from Dante, of course) turn out to be a donkey and a monkey, and their dialogue sounds like Aesop filtered through Samuel Beckett (“This road must lead somewhere”/ “Is it somewhere we want to be?”). Henry agrees to help with the play that has been the taxidermist’s life’s work, thus breaking the novelist’s writer’s block, though at a great price.
As Henry asks Henry, “Symbolic of what?”