It probably feels like an absolute eternity since I did a book review and in fairness it has been. I have been reading the book I am about to review for three months. Before you judge me harshly, I think I need to point out that it’s over a thousand pages long and I only really get to read on the train because of small human interference and general exhaustion.
Shantaram is a semi–autobiographical account of Lin, an armed robber and former heroin addict who escapes from one of Australia’s most notorious prisons in broad daylight making him an internationally wanted man.
During what was intended to be a stopover in Bombay, he meets a pan handler called Prabaker who first introduces him to the city and then takes him into the country to meet his family. This leads to Lin meeting the intriguing and mysterious Karla, with whom he almost immediately falls in love. It also leads to him being robbed and forced to move into a slum. It is here where Lin discovers and falls in love with the “true” Bombay and also where he becomes involved with Abdel Khader Khan, Bombay’s Afghani ganglord, a man who will change his life forever.
Shantaram is an absolutely fascinating novel full of contradictions. It’s not the easiest to get into and it won’t be for everyone but once I had gotten my head around the structure of the narrative, I was hooked. For me it was less about what happens in the novel but actually Lin’s search for meaning and his wrestle with his past. I found a lot of the philosophy and introspection in the novel to be engrossing and also very personally affecting. It is as much a story about the human condition as it is about the gangs of Bombay and the Afghan war.
I have to admit that I found the sheer number of characters overwhelming at times and I feel like it’s a book that needs at least one re-read to be fully appreciated – a big ask considering how absolutely massive it is. I think it’s something I probably will do one day, as well as reading the follow up The Mountain Shadow.
A new favourite of mine and one I will be recommending the next time I get asked (which happens quite a lot). If you’re not one for lots of character self-examination and delving into the meaning of the Universe, maybe not one for you. And definitely not for anyone with a limited concentration span.