Author: Gregory David Roberts
St. Martin's Press, 2003
933 very long pages
When we were in India a few weeks ago, my colleague and I saw this book for sale in the hotel bookstore, and she asked me if I'd read it (I hadn't). She said it was really good, and I almost bought it that night. But it was just so overwhelmingly huge. I promised myself I'd buy it later. It was a pleasant surprise when, on our last day in India, my colleague presented the book to me as a gift to remember our trip. So I was able to start reading this book - which mostly takes place in India - while I was in India.
From page one, I was hooked. This book is like heroin (which has a part in the book, by the way.) It just gets into you, and you can't let go of it. Even when it drives you so crazy you want to pull your hair out. Which it does. You see, even though I liked it, there were parts of Shantaram that really got on my nerves. The bear, for example. I totally don't even get why that was necessary. If you read the book and you get the part about the bear, will you please let me know?
Here's the synopsis: an Australian man - a former heroin addict (long story) - is in an Australian prison for armed robbery. He escapes and makes his way to Bombay, India, where he meets some interesting people including slum dwellers, an alcoholic Frenchman, a mysterious female, and a host of interesting international mafia types. (So far, it also sounds like the life of the author, who "in real life" did all of the above. At one point Roberts was Australia's "Most Wanted." It was while he was finishing his time in prison that he wrote this roman a clef.)
There's a lot of philosophizing in the book. Lin, the protagonist, is likeable enough, but very human. Torn between his desire to do good and a need to achieve his definition of freedom, he goes back and forth between good deeds and evil ones until ultimately, there is a need for some serious forgiveness and redemption - which, perhaps, there has been all along. There are so many layers to this book it's like an onion. Peel one away and then another appears until it falls off. Lin is a complicated character. He wants to be an intellectual - whether or not he actually is, I suppose, is up to the reader. He wants to be a good-looking man, but he isn't. Remember the "good" bad guys in the movie Pulp Fiction? Lin reminded me of them.
Of course, there's a woman. Or two. There was one in particular that I disliked so much, I would have killed her off in a very nasty way if I had been the author. Many characters are richly detailed - sometimes a little too richly - and there are several surprises. I was not happy with what the author did with one character in particular, who truly did not deserve what he got. But, like life, this book - this story - is not fair.
Shantaram is roughly divided into 4 sections: 1) the main character arrives in India and is learning the culture and meeting people. This was my favorite part. The trip to Prabaker's village is a joy to read. The slum experiences added an interesting perspective. You learn what Shantaram means and why it is important to the story. 2) Lin gets in deeper with the "wrong" crowd, and a lot of complicated stuff happens. This section is surprisingly dark. 3) Even more darkness as Lin goes off "somewhere" to "do something" I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but this was the section I liked the least, and I'll admit that I actually skimmed through several pages just to get past it. 4) Finally, things start to come together and everything is explained, and the book winds down to an end. The ending is very smooth, probably one of the smoothest endings I've read in a long time. Clever, too. Points are gained here.
Despite anything critical I may have to say about the book, I did enjoy it - sort of. It could have been like a love-hate thing. At any rate, I couldn't put it down. And that says something.
Clearly, the author fell in love with India while he was there. His description of the country and people is one of the endearing qualities of the book.
A movie version is in production right now. I've heard that Johnny Depp plays Lin, and the movie should be out sometime next year. Usually, I don't think movies are nearly as good as the books they're based on, but I will want to see this one. If for nothing else, I want to see how they mess it up.
Rating: 4 out of 5 - might have been higher if it wasn't so bloody long.
P.S. No, I will not be posting reviews every day! I can't read that fast! But I am moving through my current book rather quickly . . .