Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

An Epic Tale of Slum Life (and Gangster Life) in India


944 Pages of it!

I was really excited to find a book with so many pages that had so many positive reviews because there is something to be said with being totally immersed in a novel. This one was so engrossing and I would look for little breaks in the day to sneak off and read more. There were a couple of days that I snuck outside, away from the children, just to read undisturbed.

That being said, at about half way in, something changed and I'm not sure exactly what it was. The last quarter of the book was even less interesting and I have been trying to put my finger on exactly why I felt that way. I have come up with a list of potential reasons although it's probably a combination of all of them:

1. At the beginning of the story Mr. Lindsay arrives in Bombay to start a new life. It turns out that Mr. Lin, as he becomes once settled in, is really a fugitive from Australia after escaping from prison and a 19 year sentence for robbery when he was addicted to heroin. He meets a variety of characters along the way but one of the first is Prebaker who serves as a tour guide as he becomes acclimated. Through a series of events, Prebaker truly befriends him and eventually takes him back to his familial village and helps him transition to a slum village that he himself lives in when Lin has exhausted his funds. Lin becomes an integral part of the community, providing medical services to the overcrowded population who can't afford or access health care. To me, this story had an underlying theme of redemption, showing us another side of a hard and cynical man who could truly change. At that point, the story could have ended for me but over time Lin also becomes entangled with the Bombay Mafia. That in itself was fascinating and added another layer of depth to the story but soon Lin goes beyond some of the lesser crimes and becomes a full fledged member of this group. For me, something changed and Roberts could provide all kinds of justification for Lin's actions but I no longer felt sympathy for this man who seemed more interested in cash and that life. The conversations with other mafia members often seemed like trials about philosophy and it did not seem genuine to me but justification for their behaviors. The author lost me.

2. This book is based on the actual life of the author and is a semi-autobiographical account of his life. Roberts did indeed escape from prison. Roberts did actually flee to India. Roberts did frequent Leopold's, the local hangout for the foreigners that settled in Bombay. Roberts did establish a free clinic and operated it for ten years in the slums. Roberts did indeed work for the Bombay Mafia, engaging in activities such as being a gun runner, a counterfeiter, and a street soldier. I say all of this because so much of this is based on his life that I assumed some of the characters were real and did a little research while I was reading the book. I came to find out that most of the characters are fictionalized or are a combination of people that Roberts accounted. When I tried to find out about Prebaker and found out he didn't really exist I was (probably unjustified) disappointed and learning that none of these people were real, felt that the book fell flat. Saying this out loud makes me feel kind of guilty because most books I read are fiction anyways but I felt like I was sold a bill of goods that was false. Counterfeit. Maybe that's a theme too?

3. Towards the end of the book Lin goes to Afghanistan to fight in the war, supporting the rebels, following the mafia boss he admires/idolizes. The book just lost me. It wasn't Lin's war and it did not make sense to me that he went on a mission that had nothing to do with him.

So the question is do I recommend this book? I really could go either way. I found it fascinating to learn about life in India, especially in the slums where the community really banded together and made the best of what they had. The descriptions were so layered and detailed and I really liked a lot of the dialogue. I could have done without the mobsters who tried to justify their lives and sounded like philosophy professors in a lecture hall and the author's preachy tone that somehow was meant to make all of their actions somehow okay.

I don't think I'm going to recommend this one because the end just didn't do it for me and I had to trudge through about 400 pages to get there that left me disappointed.

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