Review: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Series: No, stand-alone

Published: 2004

Publisher: Scribe

Details: Paperback, 944 pages

My Rating: 5/5


In the early 80´s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from Australian prison onto India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail.

Then, in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan…Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. It´s a profound tribute to his willpower…At once a high-kicking, eye-gouging adventure, a love saga and a savage yet lyrical fugitive vision.

My thoughts:

This book is rapidly becoming a modern classic, and has been praised all over the world. I first heard about it in Australia a few years ago, and when even my best friend who at the most reads one book a year got through the 900+ pages in record time, I knew it was something else.

And now after reading it, I can confirm that it is.. wow, what a story, that’s all I can say. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have experienced these events, lived to tell it and even more so, relate the story in such a richly descriptive and lyrical writing. I’m genuinely impressed. Now, I’m not entirely convinced that the story is completely self-biographical, it’s just too hard to believe! But then, does it really matter? It is still a fascinating read.

So, as for the review, there is so much that I loved about this book that I don’t know where to start. First of all, I loved the language, a combination of powerful, poetic and witty. It was a pure joy to read some of the sentences, not just because of the content but because of how they were put together. It’s true that Roberts tend to use a language a bit too flowery sometimes (“When our lips parted, stars rushed through that kiss into her sea-green eyes..”), resembling something out of a Harlequin novel, but it didn’t really bother me. I think that is because the whole book perspires such pure joy for writing, that I found it impossible not to be swept away as a reader, give or take a few Harlequin look-alike sentences here and there.

The story itself was so intense, and described so vividly that during one of the sections in the middle of the book – the Indian prison episode – I almost stopped reading. Not because of lack of interest, but because the descriptions of the brutality Roberts suffered in that prison were so fierce that it felt as if I were enduring the pain myself. I also specifically remember reading a passage where Roberts describes his prison break in Australia. The section was described so vividly, that even though I knew he obviously succeeded the escape attempt (or else he would not have found himself in Bombay) I was literally sweating with nervousness for him to make it outside the prison walls. That’s how good his storytelling is.

It was an interesting read too and as a reader, you get an insight into so many areas you previously had no idea about, or at least I know I didn’t! Roberts expertly guides you into the slums, the secrets and hearts of the Indian people, the underlying mechanisms of organised crime, the forces behind the war of Afghanistan during the eighties just to mention a few.

What I enjoyed the most though were the interactions between Roberts and one of his best friends, the Indian tour-guide Prabaker who he meets early on in the book. Prabaker was by far the most likeable character in the book and it was usually wherever he was involved that I had my most laugh-out loud moments. The witty descriptions of their (indian-western european) cultural clashes were so spot-on and hilarious!

Finally, this is a story that is like nothing else you have ever read, thoroughly enjoyable on so many levels that I could talk about it forever. But simply put, it is a must-read!!!

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