Sometimes a book is so good it's hard to do justice to it in a review. This is one of those books.
As the Vakola area of Bombay (as the author usually calls it) begins to come up in the world, the inhabitants of an apartment block are offered money by a developer to move out. One man, Masterji, a retired teacher, wants to stay. This is the story of how the promise of wealth changes and corrupts a community. But it's also so much more than that. The author takes us into the lives of Masterji and his neighbours, letting us see their thoughts and dreams and fears. With humanity and humour he paints a picture of the friendships, favours and shared histories that bind a community together; and then shows how small envies and old grievances are magnified when that community is divided.
Bombay itself is a major character in the book. There is a real sense of how the city is changing as India becomes richer. The contrasts between the lucky rich and the frightening hand-to-mouth existence of the very poor are woven into the story, but subtly, so that the reader accepts these contrasts as easily as the inhabitants. The author also highlights the cosmopolitan nature of the city, the differing religions and cultures all forming one vibrant whole.
This book made me laugh and cry. It is full of warmth and the characters are drawn sympathetically and affectionately. In many ways an intimate portrait of a small group of people, but also an in-depth look at the strengths and frailties of human nature. By a long way, this is the best book I have read this year. Don't miss it!
on 23 February 2012
I read "White Tiger" a while ago and remember being impressed even though I can't recall anything about it now.I doubt that I'll forget this engrossing novel very quickly.
The story is a simple one about how decent people can,given the right circumstances,do terrible things.Adiga's talent is to trace the descent into evil with meticulous care and observation.No one in this novel is without flaw,just as no one is totally without redemptive features.Even the central heroic character is marked with pomposity,vanity and self deception.All the characters are given the time and space to develop themselves,all are realised as personalities,not cyphers, because of the length of the novel and its concentration on one central theme.
Perhaps the true villain of the piece is the city of Mumbai,shown here as a mixture of aching poverty,slick wealth,glamour,greed,envy,stunning beauty and teeming humanity.Where you live here is what you are to the world.What you have is what matters about you.Destitution means living on the pavement and scrounging a living from the filth around you.Wealth means existing in glamorous otherworld made all the more sumptuous by its existing within sight of human misery.Maybe this explains the devastating impact that the prospect of wealth has on the characters in the novel or maybe we're all capable of inhumanity, given the right circumstances.Whichever way you look at it,this is a novel that transcends its time and setting even though Mumbai is vibrantly and fascinatingly a major player in it.
If I read another novel of this quality this year,I shall count myself lucky.
I agree that it must be hard to produce a novel after reaching the unexpected heights of a Booker win so early in one's career as a novelist.
This continues the theme of how rapid change and exposure to western materialism is corrupting traditional Indian society and values, and rightly seeks a different theme from the prize-winning "The White Tiger", which highlights the gulf between rich and poor. In this case the community of residents in a proudly "middle class" Bombay tower block are split apart by the lure of a businessman's very generous offer for them to leave, to enable him to redevelop the site for luxury apartments. The story is also a study of human nature - the way in which formerly decent people turn on the one moral - and perhaps foolishly stubborn - soul who persists in refusing to be bought, thereby sabotaging their one off chance to get their hands on the windfall which they imagine will transform their lives.
Although I want to admire and enjoy this book, it seems to me to lack the sharp wit and verbal imagery, combined with creative imagination and originality of "The White Tiger". Despite the large cast of potentially interesting and moving characters, I found the scenes too plodding and pedestrian to sustain my interest. The opening pages also read more like a journalist's article, than a piece of creative writing in which the reader gradually works out what is going on, who the characters are and what they are like.
I may return to this book and try the author again with another title, but was a little disappointed.
Set in modern day Mumbai, a rich builder is seeking to force residents of an old apartment block to sell their flats to enable redevelopment. Adiga takes has a clear group of people - the diverse residents of the apartment block; an outside agent to force change - the property magnate Dharmen Shah; and a time span that focuses the decision - with the offer needing to be accepted before the oncoming monsoon rains. The diversity of the residents and their varying willingness to accept the generous payouts of the builder create a perfect environment for a good story.
Some residents are in favour of taking the money, others have more commitment to the memories that the building offers for them and gradually, by hook or by crook the residents argue and come around to the builder's way of thinking, albeit with a little help sometimes. All that is except for a retired teacher whose reaction to the pressures of his fellow residents and the builder merely encourage a more intransigent position until he is the only one holding out. But without his agreement, everyone will lose out on the deal.
It's a lovely piece of story-telling that pits rich against poor, the past against progress and corruption against standing up for what you believe in. Loyalties are questioned and greed is pitted against loyalty and reputation.
Adiga manages to give a good feeling of the poorer areas of Mumbai without being overly descriptive. Much of the story progresses through dialogue and the residents of the apartment block are all clearly portrayed to such an extent that the reader wants most of them to come out on top - but of course only one side can win in the end. Definitely a recommended read. It's been quite a wait since his first novel, the Booker-winning The White Tiger, but it's been worth the wait as this is, for me, even more enjoyable.
on 21 June 2012
I read this book over a long time because of frequent interruptions - life is like that sometimes. However, I kept going back and eagerly picking up where I left off.
The story is beautifully crafted hardly ever loses momentum but often mesmerizes with rich passages of flashback, dream-sequence and internal visualisations of the protagonist, Masterji.
The characterisation is excellent, and even though I worried at the beginning that too many were introduced at once, I had absolutely no trouble keeping them apart.
The themes of this novel are not pleasant. It describes how long-term loyalties and family devotion can be casually corrupted by money and how our pasts form us as surely as if we were made from dough. But this is not a simple fable. The complexity of the story is carefully revealed so that no character is entirely right or wrong. All have reason and motive. Masterji's inertia is examined in all possible lights, from heroic rebellion to selfish conservatism. He is portrayed as devoted teacher and husband and also as repellent bully and mad-man. His pride and humility are tossed on a sea of revelations which are too painful to endure.
Excellent read. Can't wait to get on with Aravind Adiga's more famous novel The White Tiger, but I am worried because it has those fateful words on the jacket, "Million-copy bestseller," so often millions are wrong.
Last Man in Tower is set in Mumbai (Bombay) and covers a closely-defined period from May to December 2007. The novel paints a realistic picture of the bustling, modern, go-getting city, including its finer points as well as the ever-present squalor. Aravind Adiga dedicates his book to his "fellow commuters" on the Santa Cruz-Churchgate local line, the very one used by some of the characters in his novel, confirming for us that he is indeed as familiar as it would seem with the streets, instant-food stalls and people of Vakola, east Santa Cruz, the Mumbai suburb on which the story is focussed.
The story is gripping, following the varying and developing reactions of the residents of a decaying co-operative tower block to an offer from a developer of two and a half times the real value of their flats. Most unhesitatingly accept, but a couple would rather stay put. That gives rise to conflicting loyalties, disputes within families, much open hostility, and more than a few internal conflicts. The developer too is convincingly portrayed, and we find his "left hand man" as riveting as a rabbit finds a stoat. His function is to perform the tasks the developer's right hand does not want to know about.
Reactions to the book are likely to be mixed, however. For many readers, it will be problematic that there is no-one in the book who we are invited to root for; no main character who is wholly good, give or take a few human foibles; no-one with whom we would want to identify; no unalloyed nobility. Descriptions of the dark depths of Mumbai's cess pools are easier to take than the suggestion that human avarice might extend even to ourselves. We would rather not confront the truth that the possible but uncertain prospect of sudden riches would engender in us thoughts, perhaps actions, similar to those of the residents of Vishram Society (Tower A).
Adiga ends Last Man in Tower on an optimistic note; "Nothing can stop a living thing that wants to be free." Little that goes before encourages that view, but perhaps Adiga's intention is to encourage us to break out of unhappy situations whose continuation is of our own making, and to shun avarice. If so, there is, after all, nobility in this novel.
When the Vishram Society towers were erected in Mumbai in the 1950's, they were the best place in the neighbourhood. Now run down and surrounded by the slums of Vakola, it is no longer the desirable place it once was, with new hotels and luxury apartment blocks being built for the 21st Century. The residents of both Towers A and B are resigned to their destiny, when real estate magnate Dharmen Shah offers to buy out all of the residents for a significant sum of money (around£210,000 per family). The many residents agree to the terms, except for one, retired teacher Masterji. As the now wealthy families of Tower B move in to their new homes and the bulldozers move in, Masterji still will not sign. The only question remains: to what lengths will Masterji's neighbours go, to seal the deal.
"Last Man in Tower," starts with an interesting premise and the differing perspectives and principles between the characters offer an intriguing insight. However, overall the book felt much too long and was at times confusing due to the large numbers of characters (15 families reside in Tower A). Whilst the ending was satisfactory, it was quite obvious what the outcome would be and ultimately Avarind Adiga's third novel could have been so much better.
'Last Man in Tower' continues with the themes Adiga pursued in his earlier book 'The White Tiger' - corruption, greed, injustice, the extremes of poverty and wealth, duplicity and moral degradation. This book is in many ways darker than 'The White Tiger' where the satire was frequently extremely funny.
I must admit that I struggled through the first 200 pages which describe in some detail the rich cast of characters who occupy a decaying Bombay tower block. Although I found the first half of the book slow going, without the descriptions of these ostensibly respectable, middle class people, the latter part of the book would be less powerful. That said, I can see why some people might give up reading part way through. The pace picks up when a developer offers the residents a substantial sum to move out so that he can build a luxury tower block to replace the existing run down edifice. From that point on I couldn't put the book down until I finished reading at 5am. The subtle and not so subtle pressures put upon the refuseniks are detailed. Eventually, only one man, Masterji, remains holding out against the developer - "Though the men and women around him dreamed of bigger homes and cars, his joys were those of expanding the square footage of his inner life".
None of the characters is without flaws, even the 'Last Man', but the moral bankruptcy of those who at the outset appear to be pillars of the community and yet who are ready to do almost anything in pursuit of money makes for riveting reading. On the other hand the developer is ostensibly the villain of the piece, yet his back story means that you don't see him in an entirely bad light, indeed for me he emerges more favourably than do some of Masterji's neighbours and friends. Adiga for the most part is good at setting out the complex and varying motivations and emotions of his characters, and the shifting perspectives as the story develops. I didn't particularly like any of the characters, even at the beginning, but still found the descent into amorality of some of them quite shocking.
The novel exposes the hypocrisy and self-deception of people 'on the make': the developer's girlfriend who labours under the delusion that she is different from a prostitute; the developer who is prepared to consider violence to achieve his objectives yet is aghast at his son's minor criminal activities; the tower block resident praying at the church for Masterji to change his mind having looked the other way when he is confronted with threats and intimidation.
The writing is wonderful - evocative, laconic, wry. There is some vivid description of life in modern Bombay and some glorious turns of phrase. I found the characters, and the sense of community, to be compelling. Ultimately, though, I found this a more depressing and ambiguous, but perhaps more believable, story than 'White Tiger' and a less satisfying book overall.
I'll confess: I'd never heard of Aravind Adiga before but, being a big fan of Ronhinton Mistry, this sounded like something I'd enjoy. Someone then pointed out to me the awards that the author has won. Oops.
I really enjoyed this book. The majority of the characters are very well written - they're all 3-dimensional with complex motivations, needs and flaws. This is what helps bring the book to life - I realised at one point that, with 30 pages left to read, I had simply no idea how it was going to end. Post-climax, the characters reveal even more depths. Superb. It's very tightly plotted and is just begging for a film adaptation.
Yes, it's not a superficially "happy" book but who cares? Read "A Fine Balance" and you'll see why it doesn't matter.
Excellent. I'm now off to buy the earlier work....
There is a point when Adiga's latest suddenly comes to life. The last man holding out in the tower block, not prepared to sell to a developer, seems to have run out of ways to fight the builder, whilst others in the block are desperate that they might have missed the deadline for accepting the builder's deadline and prepare to try to force the old man's hand. The story gains dynamism, strength and tension. Sadly, by this point I was about three-quarters of the way through the book.
It isn't easy to pin point exactly why the rest of the book doesn't sparkle. It certainly contains some beautiful writing. Adiga has a gift, reminiscent of Graham Greene, to pick striking conceits and metaphors: young rich Indians compared to plump glossy chicken breasts on a rotisserie; a statuette of Ganesha at a lawyer's office is `like a soft white rat living on the staircase'.
It lacks the vibrancy of `The White Tiger', Adiga's Booker winning first novel, however. There is no sharp and witty narrator here and there is also rather less of the narrative drive of the first book. Part of the problem might be in its rather too diffuse focus on a number of characters. Whilst the issue is nothing like as severe as a glance at the rather intimidating list of all the residents of the tower block at the beginning might lead one to fear, there are seven or eight important view point characters.
In some ways it is closer to the short stories of `Between the Assassinations' as a result - where Adiga showed a gift for realising characters with deft strokes. There are many similarities between some of the characters shown there and the disappointed middle class inhabitants of the tower block. Thematically, there are strong similarities too: the individual's fight against corruption, principle against the combination of society and individual self interest. Here, for the central character at least, there are also Greene-like questions of divided loyalty.
But whilst in `Between the Assassinations' the stories of each individual command attention here the split focus seems to mean that many characters never properly develop. Even the main character, Masterji, felt flat, never fully developing a life of his own, for me at least, beyond the ticks and past incidents worked out in advance by the author. Others are weaker. The important character of Mrs Rego, who should be sympathetic and who plays an increasingly important role in how events unfold, remains uninteresting, one note and not wholly convincing.
This issue is highlighted because there is a character who has all the life and vibrancy lacking elsewhere. Mr Shah, the builder and developer and the white tiger of this book, is compelling. A self-made man, Mephistophelian in his dealings and determined to build his great project (`Gothic style, Rajput porch, Art Deco fountain. My life story in one building.') as a statement about himself but also as a gift to the future of the city that allowed him to drag himself up from his humble beginnings. In his struggles with his delinquent son, loved and also capable of being used as a prop in his business deals, his young mistress and `left hand man' he leaps from the page.
Intellectually, one suspects, Adiga's sympathy lies with the divided characters in the tower but his interest lies with the figure behind it all, pulling the strings.
In the end, then, Adiga's latest novel disappoints to some extent. He has not recaptured the formula that made `White Tiger' so successful. On the other hand, judged on its own terms, there book still has enough to make it a worthwhile read.