Review of SHANTARAM by GREGORY DAVID ROBERTS
Several people have urged me to read this book over the years, but I’ve collected mixed reviews. Many adore the novel while some find themselves baffled at its popularity. Others, like myself, form more divided opinions that make it an excellent conduit for discussion.
I’m convinced that the book will appeal most to people obsessed with India. Personally, I’m obsessed with Japan and usually adore works with Japanese themes, settings, and/or characters. At its core, SHANTARAM is a love letter to India. Now I’ve mentioned before in my Book Elements post that setting is what I care about least in a story. So novels where setting becomes a powerful character in its own right often don’t hold my attention very well. With SHANTARAM, I often caught myself wondering at the point of the story. The tale weaves, rambles, and wanders as it ambitiously recounts so many details that it loses some sense of focus and direction. Then I realized the point isn’t so much plot or characters, as is my preference (though there are plenty of engaging characters, but that’s another topic). The point is reveling in the wonder that is India.
I found the writing strong and skilled but sometimes overly stylistic. People with a similar mindset to the author and protagonist will obviously connect the most, but otherwise much of the writing feels a bit longwinded. The same can often be said as or more eloquently with far fewer words. Some sprawling descriptions of scenery or characters felt too indulgent to me. For example, if we establish up front that the character Karla has very pretty green eyes, we could cut pages upon pages of description regarding those eyes, including:
I tried once more to find the words for the foliant blaze of her green eyes. I thought of leaves and opals and the warm shallows of island seas. But the living emerald in Karla’s eyes, made luminous by the sunflowers of gold light that surrounded the pupils, was softer, far softer.
The green of lagoons, where shallow water laps at golden sand.
The green that trees are, in vivid dreams. It was the green that the sea would be, if the sea were perfect.
I also considered some lines pretty nothings: aptly phrased but I disagree with the sentiment - such as the line: “I’d been a man who committed crimes...rather than a criminal, and there’s a difference.” A tempting thought, but ultimately what sounds to me like fanciful self-justification. However, other lines struck me just the right way. Here are a few of my favorites:
I was too young, then, to know that dead lovers are the toughest rivals.
Some women cry easily. The tears fall as gently as fragrant raindrops in a sun-shower, and leave the face clear and clean and almost radiant. Other women cry hard, and all the loveliness in them collapses in the agony of it.
There are few things more discomfiting than a spontaneous outburst of genuine decency from someone you’re determined to dislike for no good reason.
Good soldiers are defined by what they can endure, not by what they can inflict.
I think I could divide the book about half/half into insights I like and admire vs. those that had me either rolling my eyes or mentally ranting my disagreement. I do want to call attention, though, to the fact that I had consistently strong reactions rather than apathy.
I often found the story’s tone a little too sentimental for my taste. The primary romance plotline falls under the love at first sight category and is portrayed in larger than life terms that I ultimately find more cheesy than stirring. The sentimental isn’t confined to the romance either. A particular garment is portrayed as one of God’s finest works, gestures as windows to universal human emotion, and a bear’s growl called eloquent. A boy wins a fight by staring shame into his opponent until they embrace instead. I might connect with the underlying mentality of some of these things, but find the execution too over the top to take seriously.
I mentioned the word “longwinded” earlier. I am a big believer in the concept that less is more. I suspect this story could be told equally well (or possibly better) in about a third of the length. It’s a hefty tome at over a 1,000 pages. I feel that when an author asks a reader to invest more time in his or her work, each extra page should add something. I don’t mind length when I agree the story shouldn’t be trimmed, but in this case I felt SHANTARAM needed some brutal editing. For that matter, often the author puts forth a beautiful, admirable metaphor...only to repeat the same point twenty more times with varying metaphors. (Karla’s pretty green eyes serve as a prime example.) There’s also a lot of “if I knew then what I know now” foreshadowing that I find unnecessary. I will admit, though, that this lengthy book reads much faster than one might expect, likely in no small part because there is an engaging story at its core.
I haven't even touched on what the story’s about yet besides India (which is indeed primarily what it’s about). This epic, sprawling tale follows a man who escaped his lengthy sentence in Australian prison for armed robberies and then fled to India where he meets an assortment of interesting people and ultimately falls in with a group of intelligent and ruthless Indian gangsters. You only need to read the brief author biography at the end of the novel to realize this is a fictionalized autobiography, which invites plenty of speculation on the line between truth and fiction.
Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed this book throughout but it wasn’t until the end when I started understanding why some adore it so much. About three quarters of the way through this 1,000 page novel a few unexpected twists change the context of everything you have read so far.
Sadly, there’s a bit of an anticlimactic ending, especially for such a huge book. It’s the kind that feels more like trailing off than ending. Sometimes that works perfectly for a story, but after all the disparate elements I encountered in SHANTARAM I hoped for an end that found a little more connection between various plotlines.
In summary, a complex yet average story made noteworthy by an abundance of unique characters and a consuming passion for India . There’s not much structure to the plot more than “and then this happened,” but the story features a wealth of themes, relationships, and declarations that could each provoke hours of debate.