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Customer Review

21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A good story but in need of serious editing, 23 Feb. 2011
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This review is from: Shantaram (Paperback)
Let me start by being positive. This book gives a fascinating insight into life on the back streets of Bombay and into the criminal mind. In places it is readable and even exciting. The novel has also been successful. There can't be many living authors who can write a bestseller of 934 pages, and Gregory David Roberts should be congratulated for that achievement alone, even by those who didn't like the book.

For me, the book began well. Despite some initial misgivings about the style, I felt I was entering the fringes of a hitherto unknown Bombay society where decadence and subsistence level poverty mingled in colourful and almost contented disorder. One of the key characters in this introductory period is Prabaker, who gives Mr Roberts the name Lin, or Linbaba, and who acts as his guide. Prabaker stands out as being one of the few likeable characters in this book. He is also amusing with a sly sense of humour and hilariously idiomatic English, which is skilfully recorded by Mr Roberts. For about 300 pages, I confess to admiring Lin as he contrives to make a new life for himself, living off his wits and doing whatever was necessary to survive, including petty crime. And when he opened his "medical centre" - or First Aid post to be more accurate - in the middle of a squalid slum, I experienced the vicarious redemptive thrill of watching a drug dealing criminal transform himself into a latter day Albert Schweitzer.

However, when, Lin abandons his good works in the slum to become a full-time criminal, the book ceases to be a novel and becomes a self-justification of the author. It seems to me that he is saying: Yes, I have done some criminal acts in my time, but that was all because of my heroin habit which wasn't really my fault - and at heart I'm actually a pretty decent human being. Just look at the way I spout philosophy, and the way I can come up with an original simile for every occasion. Surely a guy like me can't be all bad? And it cannot have escaped your notice that all the men think I'm cool - except a few really nasty ones, like prison warders, whose opinions can be safely ignored. And whilst on the subject of prison warders, don't you think they're much lower forms of life than those nice criminals in their prisons? All this brings me neatly to the point - which many reviewers have noted before me - that this book is badly edited, or possibly hasn't been edited at all other than by the gentle hand of Mr Roberts.

Let me list a few of the things that bug me. Mr Roberts doesn't shy away from using long words - he uses a dozen words in this book that I haven't heard before and probably won't encounter again. Does this make him an intellectual? Does he think his readers ought to read with a dictionary in one hand? Hmmm. I'll keep my harsh opinion to myself on this one lest I sound bitter and twisted. Next there is the dialogue. Some conversations are allowed to meander meaninglessly for several pages before mercifully fading into oblivion. A character called Didier is allowed to spout banalities masquerading as aphorisms. Paradoxes should not be confused with wit or wisdom (unless written by Oscar Wilde). Dialogue is a great way to get into the mind of a character, but enough is enough. Too much is irritating and boring. Philosophy: Why do vicious criminals like Khader find it necessary to justify themselves by trying to explain the mysteries of the universe and the nature of God? Does it disguise their greed? Does it put them above the law? (M'lud, I may have sold a couple of ounces of heroin, but have you heard my dialectics? They must be worth a non custodial sentence...) My advice to anyone actually wanting to learn about philosophy is to read Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder and ignore the druggy claptrap spewed ad nauseam in Shantaram. Finally the undisciplined use of purple prose gets really annoying after a while. I love similes and metaphors as much as I love chocolate sauce on vanilla ice cream. But they are much more effective when they creep up on you like mischievous imps and cascade you with delight at their laser precision. (Sorry, but that's what happens when you use a B&Q paint aerosol to tint your prose.) In Shantaram, Mr Roberts seems to believe he is on a mission to teach young writers that it's always better to use a figure of speech than not to. I don't agree. There's a place for good old-fashioned plain English: A few powerful, apposite words can wipe the floor with a spongeful of soggy similes.

Well that's got the major gripes off my chest, but I have a couple of minor ones too. Mr Roberts' medical imprecision is distracting, for example he describes a fracture as compound, which should mean that a broken end of bone protrudes through the skin, but then he carefully explains that the skin around the fracture is unbroken. Also there is a revolting eye gouging incident where he seems to think that an eyeball can be removed from the orbit and then stuck back in again without any lasting harm being done. (Children, do not try this at home.) Finally there is the love interest, Karla, a woman who makes Lin fall in love with her by touching him up on their first meeting. The best thing about Karla, for me, is that she has many lengthy absences from the storyline. Mr Roberts tries to portray her as beautiful and enigmatic, but I just found her damaged and unpredictable. Anyway, the girl is quite superfluous. Linbaba doesn't need a love interest. He's patently deeply and irrevocably in love with himself.

To conclude, this is a badly flawed work, but buried underneath the excess verbiage is a potential classic. Please, Mr Roberts, if you ever read this, hire someone to cut this book down to 450 pages and leave the world with something that may still be read in a 100 years.
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