Shantaram (Shantaram #1), by Gregory David Roberts

Nine stars

Returning to read Gregory David Roberts’ epic novel again, I found myself drawn to the complexities and nuances embedded throughout the text. As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to Lin, a man who has escaped his Australian jail and arrives in Bombay, hoping to hide in India’s vast populace. Early on, Lin is forced to realise that India is a beast unlike any other; culturally, racially, and economically. It is, however, home to many who have the same idea, hiding from their criminal pasts elsewhere. These include Karla Saarinen, a woman who occupies Lin’s mind and dreams from the moment he lays eyes on her. As Lin befriends others who have recently arrive in country, seeking to blend into the billions around him with vague and beige backstories, he meets a tour guide, Prabaker (Prabu). Their connection is almost instantaneous, soon becoming an entertaining pair throughout the narrative. Prabu is able to help Lin make numerous connections in and around the city. While they venture out to better explore Bombay and eventually other parts of the state, Lin learns the culural differences between India and his Australian upbringing. As Prabu and Lin continue their adventures, the latter finds himself living in the city’s slums and opens a medical clinic to cater to the poorest population, where Lin becomes involved with the shady underworld and black market living. Throughout the book, Lin crosses paths with those whose simple conversations turn philosophical and force him to digest complex analyses to the universe’s most basic concepts. When offered a position working in forged passports by the Bombay Mafia, Lin accepts, if only to explore new pathways to survival. His living in the slums of Bombay prove not only eye opening, but life changing in ways that the reader can only understand by being enveloped in the larger narrative. Even as Lin is able to build himself up in his new homeland, he is broken by the cruelest and most sadistic Indians, especially when his identity is learned and extradition considered. Roberts offers so much in this narrative that it is hard to summarise or believe that this is the life of a single man on the run. However, where truth ends and fiction commences, the reader is permitted a front seat for everything and the chance to change alongside Lin throughout. A must read by any and all who want to offer up all they feel they know, only to finish the book and question everything.

Set in the early to mid-1980s, the story weaves together a collection of vignettes within Lin’s Indian life, while also telling an overarching story of change and progress. I have read that some criticise Roberts for being too free with his truths and duping the reader, though I must say that fiction is all about embellishment or at least working with a clay and forming it into an image of your choosing. Roberts’ writing style is so blunt and yet smooth that the reader cannot help but get lost therein. The daunting size of the book should not deter the interested reader, as the vignettes play out easily and the characters are rich in their backstories and mesh well with the larger tale. Roberts has certainly held back little in this account of his ‘life on the run’, but also offers gaps significant enough to keep scores of questions floating in the minds of the attentive reader. Will these be resolved and if so, how does it all play into the narrative Roberts presents? The second volume of this quasi-memoir should tell more, though the bar has already been set quite high. I am eager to see how the detail will continue and what Roberts has to say with the handful of characters still involved in Lin’s life. This is a brilliant piece of work and I can only imagine what is to come.

I cannot finish this review without commenting on the narrator of the audiobook version of this massive tome. Humphrey Bower brought the story to life, from his melodious Australian accent in the narrative to the countless accents that he brought out to give characters their personality. I adore Bower’s work and his dedication to another favourite author of mine made me wonder, when first I listened, if this was that writer using another name. Powerful and daunting, Bower deserves a shout out for his reading of this piece. I am worried that the second volume, which I must physically read (gasp), will prove much more difficult without Bower at the helm.

Kudos, Mr. Roberts for this epic story. With simplistic writing and complex threads, a vast array of readers will surely enjoy this book. Onto the sequel, which one can hope is as exciting and life-altering.