Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is a book about which I’ve been curious for a while. My husband mentioned it; my sister was reading it. Then, several months ago, I read Diane’s review of the audio version–all 43 hours of it–on Bibliophile By the Sea. I decided to go that route and borrowed Shantaram from the library in late February.
About the Book:
Shantaram is, at least partly, autobiographical. I read it without knowing much about the author’s life, only later finding out how much of it was blended into the novel. It’s the story of a nameless man who arrives in Bombay after escaping from an Australian prison. He assumes the identity on the passport he’s using, but the name–Mr. Lindsey–is quickly shortened to Linbaba (or just Lin) by Prabaker, the delightful guide Lin encounters shortly after arriving.
What follows is Lin’s journey through Bombay’s underworld–the slums, the mafia, the drug trade, the violence–with a generous smattering of reflection and philosophy. His friends are Indians and foreigners. He learns Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu. He falls in love with India and carves out a life for himself amongst its people. Shantaram traces his progress.
I have different opinions with regards to each aspect of Shantaram on audio. The reader, Humphrey Bower, is quite possibly the best narrator I’ve ever encountered. On the other hand, though, I didn’t find myself reveling in particularly stunning passages as many of Shantaram‘s readers have. I didn’t like Lin and wasn’t much compelled to care too deeply about him. But I’ll start with the positive.
Humphrey Bower is simply amazing. In fact, he was so good I’m considering listening to other things he’s read, even though I’ve never heard of them, just because he reads them. The book’s in first person, and Bower’s Australian, so Lin’s accent comes naturally to him. But in the course of the book, he does at least ten other accents impeccably: French, German, American, Canadian, Italian, Spanish, British Arabic, and more, not to mention several accents from around India. Shantaram is brimming with characters, yet Bower managed to distinguish them magnificently. I could identify the important characters just by the voice Bower used for each. He even had a different way of speaking for when Lin was conversing with other characters versus when he was narrating. It was amazing.
The book itself was fine. Surprisingly, I rarely felt bored or like the story was dragging, despite its length. I did get tired of all the physical descriptions of people. Every person Lin encountered had to be described, which got a bit annoying, as rarely did his or her appearance have anything to do with the story. Every woman he met was “beautiful.” There were long passages that I think were meant to be soul-searching and introspective but which struck me as cliched and insincere. (Which might be due to my dislike of the main character; I’ll get to that next.) Overall, though, the story kept moving at a good clip. I especially liked the first half, where the characters were more likeable and Lin’s activities less dubious.
Most of my issues with Shantaram lie with Lin himself. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t like him. He portrays himself as being a very good, loyal, principled, humble, and so on, but I never saw those qualities in him. I didn’t believe his revelations. I didn’t feel emotionally involved in his journey. He’d make a mistake and I’d think, “Serves you right.” He’d atone and claim he’d learned something, and I’d roll my eyes. There were certainly characters in Shantaram that I liked very much–Prabaker, especially, and the bear–but Lin, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them.
So. Bottom line? If you’re an audiobook listener and love good narrators, check Shantaram out (or at least Humphrey Bower). If you like a wild ride of a story, I think you’d enjoy Shantaram in either print or on audio. If you need to like your main character, or if drugs and violence are issues for you, I would not recommend Shantaram. Oh, and if 43 hours sounds overkill to you, there is an abridged version available through Audible.com that comes in at just over 18 hours!
- Bibliophile By the Sea
- Book Atlas
- Brown Paper
- Chocolate & Croissants
- the little reader
- Stacy’s Books
Did I miss yours? Please let me know!
What books have left you with opposing reactions? If you listen to audiobooks, are there narrators you’ll listen to no matter what they’re reading?