At the request of my good friend Mike Wolfe, I agreed to read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. When I said "yes," I was under the silly preconception that this would be a normal-sized novel of around three hundred pages or so. A week or so after my acceptance of Mike's charge, I went to see him and retrieve the novel. Needless to say I was in for a bit of shock! The book he handed me was well over three times the length I expected - 936 pages to be exact! Never to be one to turn down a challenge, I swallowed hard and accepted the book with a smile. Several months later, after reading this book in between studying for my dissertation proposal, grading papers, preparing Sunday School lessons for Crossroads, among other things, I can honestly say that I am glad Mike asked me to read Shantaram and I'm glad I completed it!
At the onset I have to admit one of the most interesting and most confounding things about this novel is that it is a strange but fascinating mix between fiction and memoir. The author, Roberts, has actually lived many of the things which he describes in the book, whether as a "doctor" in a slum in Bombay, a fighter in a war in Afghanistan, or a mobster in Bombay. So the reader is often left trying to decide what is fact and what is fiction. Maybe that is part of the draw of this novel, namely, how real it presents these seemingly fantastic scenarios.
The basic summary of the novel is that an escaped Australian convict finds himself in Bombay. He has no friends, no connections, and very little hope. What he does have, however, is a certain level of ingenuity. He makes some money and some friends and eventually decides to live in Bombay instead of just passing through. He winds up in a slum where he heals wounds, makes friends, and learns quite a bit about himself. From this point on in the story many things happen, so many that it seems almost impossible that they all could have possibly happened to one man. He visits an Indian village, he is incarcerated in an Indian prison, he because a gangster, he gets involved in the conflict between Russian and Afghanistan, and, oh yeah, he falls in love somewhere in there too. For the author's own overview of the novel, check out this video, which will only confirm the strange problem of memoir versus fiction in this book!
Now on to the bulk of the review, starting with the strengths of Roberts' book. In general this book is compelling. In parts you simply cannot put it down. Roberts descriptive talent is one of the primary reasons for this. He paints such intriguing mental pictures that, to be cliche, you actually feel like you are there with Lin, the main character, where ever he might be. Perhaps the most important character, maybe even more important than Lin, is Bombay itself - its people, its crime, its smell, its food, its movies, its music. Besides a few small and silly introductions to Bombay previous to this book, I knew very little about India or its shining jewel, Bombay. I must say that I am so thankful to Roberts for this introduction.
However, the book is not perfect. At times Roberts is so extremely verbose that it is prohibitive. Roberts describes in painful detail each and every character, no matter how important or how small. The nature of the book also necessitates that many of the characters are absent from the story for long periods of time, which is perfectly fine. However, when these characters come back into the story, Roberts goes into the same level of detail reintroducing them. This sadly weighs the plot down at points. Honestly, at times I would simply skip over paragraphs which I knew only contained irrelevant details about how a minor character looked or sounded. Another major issue is that there are times when the novel simply drags. Perhaps Roberts could have better served his audience by splitting this book into two or three parts because the reader invariably will fall in love with the characters from the beginning of the book only to find that most of them play a very small role in the remaining two-thirds of the story. I believe that this problem is what caused the momentum of the book to fade as it moved closer to the end. Lastly, Roberts is quite preachy. At times the reader may simply disagree with some commentary that Roberts provides, which seems to neither move the story forward or aid in character development. At times I feel like the audience is addressed directly by Roberts but in a thinly veiled indirect way (if you know what I mean!).
Overall, Shantaram is a good book. Sure, it's long and in parts it's tedious. But it is also beautiful and richly textured throughout. As a quick aside, I watched Slumdog Millionaire after reading this novel and found that the novel was brought to life in a new way by watching Slumdog. Some of the settings became clearer, as well as the accents of the characters. I would highly recommend fans of the book to watch Slumdog or fans of the movie to read Shantaram. Speaking of movies, Shantaram has been bought by a production company and it appears that Johnny Depp may play the role of Lin (source). How they translate this behemoth into a movie will be interesting!
For more information about Roberts or his book, please check out the official Shantaram website!