Shantaram, a thrilling & wild tale | Book Review

Here’s my review of Shantaram; a thrilling novel featuring love, compassion, sex, violence, crime, prison, motorbikes, metaphors like no other and lot of alluring characters – all bound by their love of Bombay, or as it’s known today, Mumbai . 

Shantaram is 933 pages of exhilarating, exciting and somewhat exhausting narrative, inspired by the adventures of Gregory David Roberts in Bombay during the 1980s. Although based on Roberts’ life during this time, from what I understand the story is actually a novel, and the characters are in fact fictional.  

With respect, Shantaram is not an autobiography, it’s a novel. If the book reads like an autobiography, I take that as a very high compliment, because I structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact. I wanted the novel to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it had the authentic feel of fact.” 

In Roberts’ own words, found via Wikipedia, from websites that no longer exist. 

In a hurry? Skip to my final summary and star rating.

Shantaram Review - Sarah under the tree reading

What’s Shantaram all about then? 

To summarise, the main character escapes in broad daylight from an Australian prison (this is definitely autobiographical), flees to India via New Zealand using a false passport, under the name ‘Lin’. He then proceeds to spend the following years in a chaotic ensemble of situations. Including and not limited to: living in the slums, running a health clinic, forging passports, working for the mafia, hugging a bear (no joke, one of my fave bits), hanging out with his pals at the local bar, starring in Bollywood films and fighting with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. 

Roberts had drafts of this book ruined during his prison sentence back in Australia a decade after his time in Bombay. 

What is Shantaram like to read? 

It’s not a light, easy going story that’s for sure. There are parts I wished would hurry up, there is devastating actions and experiences I have never and hope to never have to go through, there are characters Roberts describes with so many metaphors and adjectives that you actually struggle to really picture them, and there’s traumatising amounts of violence in a number of scenarios that I found somewhat exhausting.  

I’d like to share with you this insane amount of metaphors used here, as Lin describes the character, Karla who he is in love with (no plot spoilers he literally falls in love with within like 10 pages haha):

“The hairstyle threw attention at her large green eyes, the green of lagoons, where shallow water laps at golden sands – and at her black eyebrows and perfect mouth. Her lips were like the soft ridges of dunes in the desert at sunset; like the crests of waves meeting in the frothy rise to shore; like the folded wings of courting birds. The movements of her body as she walked toward me on the broken lane, were like storm-wind stirring in a stand of young willow trees”

Shantaram, page.380

Rest assured good readers, this just one section. Lin only goes all weird and metaphory when he talks about Karla haha! Or sex, yes I did sometimes struggle to identify whether or not he had had sex with a couple of characters because he rarely said that out right. Intentionally perhaps, but personally I just like to know if two people get it on haha! 

Saying all that I found Shantaram a thrilling page turner. Parts of the story were so shocking and captivating that I couldn’t put it down, unwilling to believe that perhaps that particular section of the story was actually true. 

Shantaram Review - Sarah under the tree holding the Shantaram book in front of her

Who are the characters? 

  • Excitable, pure and charming Prabaker was by far my favourite character. He lived honestly in a slum near the World Trade Centre building site (as was at the time), and I thoroughly enjoyed any part of the story in which Prabaker featured. He was described as having a huge smile, and I just felt like he would be a total babe to actually meet. 
  • Lin himself was relatively self involved, and often flitted around between groups of friends or acquaintances, without any real explanation. Had I been with him in Bombay at the time I would have described him as elusive. Given he’s a fugitive on the run, I’m sure he would be an interesting friend to have, however as he, himself describes Karla, he also would be hard to get close to. 
  • Karla was a total mystery. It is she, who Lin describes with such complicated metaphors that I’ve never actually pictured her in my mind. Another loose cannon, elusive and some might say deceptive in her actions during the course of the story. 
  • Khaderbai, the mafia lead who had me re-reading sections over and over again to ensure I understood his philosophical explanations.
  • Abdullah, who I just imagined as a really sexy Iranian guy on a motorbike dressed all in black. 
  • Plus, there’s a gang of ex-pats who meet at the infamous Leopold’s bar, each with their own weird stories and jobs in Bombay. I imagine it to be similar to a bar I visited in Shanghai with a random American man I met in China. Different nationalities, backgrounds, experiences and futures all mashed together in a foreign city.
Shantaram Review - Sarah under the tree holding the Shantaram book in front of her

Shantaram review in summary:

I had anticipated a story similar to Marching Powder, with shocking revelations, violence and crime. It was all of that and more; if you loved Marching Powder this is the perfect book for you. Exciting, terrifying and exhilarating as you speed through Bombay in the 80s on the back of Lin’s motorbike as he commits crimes, falls in love and manages to survive an incredible number of turbulent situations. 

So, do you recommend Shantaram? 

100% recommend reading this book!!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Let me know what you thought about this book, or if you plan to read it!

Sarah xx

big orange W

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