Book Review: Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

(This review does NOT contain spoilers.)

For me, booktime is usually bed time. And with this book, I was looking forward to going to bed so much, there were nights I was in my jammies under the covers with a cuppa on my nightstand even before 9pm. It’s been a while since I had such a thrilling read.

Usually, I read quite thin books, and I read for no longer than 15 minutes an evening. I enjoy the writing style, the language used, the hidden motives, and how the story comes together, and I really invest a lot of effort and concentration in getting ev-er-y-thing out of the book. Shantaram was definitely not my usual book. First of all: it’s massive. I think it’s been since Harry Potter I’ve read such a big book. And it compares with Harry Potter on another level: it read like a train. (Or at least most parts of it, but I’ll come back to that later.) This book was very much a book I read for the story, and what a story it was. Although I have to admit, this man knows how to write too. The story is mostly set in Mumbai, a part of the world I have never even been close to. But he managed perfectly to create an image of the town, without having to fall back on tiringly long descriptions and bundles of adjectives that would slow down the read. No, before you even know it, he has taken you along on his crazy journey.

And this journey was very much his, since it is an autobiographically (inspired?) book. Another thing I usually don’t read, for two reasons: Usually, if I know what my favourite writers have been through in their lives, I don’t enjoy their books as much anymore, because I stop seeing it as a creative peace of art when I find things that they plucked out of their own lives. Also, this very much seemed to be a sensational autobiography, and I am not one for sensation as much as I am for a smart story. Which is why I chose to believe this book is very much autobiographically INSPIRED, because the story is smart for sure. Not only does one scary (aka sensational) thing happen after another, there are some twists in the book that would either turn this man into the unluckiest man alive, or they would change this book from merely a sensational story, to a very good book. I follow option B.

The main character, our writer, has escaped from prison in his homecountry Australia and fled to Mumbai. And that is where our story starts. It is not about how he got into prison, or how he got out (although as the story evolves, the writer does let you in on some of these ‘secrets’), but about how he makes a life for himself as a fugitive, how old habits die hard, and how all he cares about really is to find himself a new family to replace the one he screwed up with in the past, the family he will never see again. From living amongst tourists, he goes to living in the slums, on the countryside, he even spends some time in Afghanistan. He meets wonderful people, and really awful people, and has a thousand and one unthinkable things happen to him.

There is definitely a lot of action going on, but once in a while this is broken up by some more philosophical passages, conversations with friends and mentors about the deeper issues of life. About the aim of life, about religion, about happiness and love. To be honest, for me, as beautifully written as these passages were and as much as they made you think, it was a bit too much. When you’ve been flipping through the pages because something so scary was happening you just had to read your way to the end of it extra fast, it is hard to slow down again and get the brain juices flowing. These passages were often so deep and intelligent, I felt like I would have to read them a few times more to fully grasp their meaning. But this isn’t that kind of book. Those kind of books should be short and evenly paced, because they will take a lot of your energy so that when you flip the final page, you can feel properly wowed and challenged. I think these passages would have had more effect and would’ve broken up the book less if they were more concise. And I have to admit, I sometimes did some diagonal reading just to get to the next exciting bit. But now I’m nitpicking. Slower passages or not, I wanted nothing more than to read more and more and more!

So to summarise, should you read this book? Yes you should! Why? Because it is an exciting read about the Mumbai underworld that is more than just a story.

 

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