Yann Martel’s novel Self (Knopf), seems aptly titled for a book that depicts a character growing from childhood into adulthood. Martel’s first book, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, kept me on my couch for chapter after chapter with tears in my eyes. Self displays Martel’s breadth of knowledge, his skill at prose and his lovely imagination. In spite of this, it has been resting at the bottom of my bedside reading pile with a bookmark stuck in about a third of the way through for at least a month now. Perhaps Martel’s obsession with bodily functions (really: pages and pages on acne, shit, masturbation, menstruation; with sex and a flesh-eating disease no doubt lurking in the pages I didn’t reach) turned me off. Or perhaps it was the moment when the main character, a male, without warning wakes up female. Not once does she look in the mirror to assess her new self, although she continues with his/her litany of other observations. The bodily change brings no change in thought process, not even surprise. So my interest waned. And, as is true for much of my life, I wish my faith in Self would return, because in spite of its faults I still have hopes for it.
Since my review of Yann Martel’s novel Self (Knopf) in Geist No. 21, I have retrieved it from my bedside table and read it to the end. It’s an attractive hardcover with a creamy yellow sleeve and the story, which stumped me at first, enthralled me when I continued where I left off. The way the character is initiated into sex, academics, travel, work and love is moving and often amusingly perceptive. I was so transported into her world that I thought about her even when I wasn’t reading the story, and when it came, the much-discussed ending jarred me as it was meant to. Self is worth pursuing past the sluggish part near the beginning; it is sure to win big literary prizes.