This will be a fairly short review – as I don’t want to spend too much time talking about a book I disliked. I stopped short of hating it – just – but I certainly didn’t like it. The writing is good – in places very good, lovely prose –something I always enjoy – you might expect that at least I suppose in a Booker shortlisted novel, but the subject, the setting and the characters I disliked.
“Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts, the rage addicts, the poverty addicts , and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and the tenderness the substances engender. An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency.”
Shuklaji Street, in Old Bombay is the setting, a place of opium addicts, prostitutes and violence. The novel spans many years, starting in the 1970’s with changing narrators it is chaotic and hallucinatory and really rather squalid, upon finishing it I wanted a bath. The narrator of the start of the novel is a visitor to the Opium den of Rashid, where he also meets the eunuch prostitute Dimple, he returns at the end of the novel, many years later to see who is left and find out what has happened to the people he knew back then.
The construction of the novel is more like many small stories that weave in and out of each other in a non-linear way. We meet Mr Lee – a regular patron of Dimple’s whose back story takes us to the cultural revolution of Mao’s china. I did find the stories of Mr Lee and Dimple to be the most interesting, and for a while after struggling with the beginning of the book I began to actually enjoy it. However I found it difficult to remain interested in the characters and the construction of the novel made it hard at times to follow. This construction is very clever – this dream like almost hallucinatory quality is beautifully suited to these stories – the narratives seem like the confused and foggy view of an opium addict might look.
I had looked forward to this book – and judging by the reviews of it on Goodreads and Amazon I am something of a lone voice. Most people seem to have liked it a lot – so I must have missed something, it always rather annoys me if I feel I have missed what others haven’t. Well we can’t always like the same things can we?