Narcopolis (review)

mummy rates it put a call out on Twitter last month for book-loving bloggers to review books on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist before the big announcement is made tomorrow.

I raised my hand and claimed Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. These days I’m more likely to read tweets than newspapers, let alone high brow novels.

Narcopolis tells Mumbai’s story through the eyes of addicts, eunuchs and artists amongst others. The city crawls through the decades, damned from the start. Opium gives way to heroin. There is so much ugliness everywhere.

Having promised that I’d read the thing, I proceeded to put it off until the last minute.

Quietly panicking a couple of nights ago, while breastfeeding Talitha to sleep, I got my Kindle out and got started. Crud. The first few pages were composed of one continuous sentence. It’s one of those, I thought.

It didn’t stay there. Or maybe it did. Maybe it swept me into its smoky daydream, so stoned on opium I lost track of form and style and only craved the next sentence.

Over the past couple of years, I may have grown a touch Philistinic, mainly out of exhaustion. I’ll be honest; I’m in a place right now where I don’t want to have to think too hard.

Narcopolis is not an easy read. It floats in and out of opium dens and poetry, shifts perspectives, wanders through Mumbai’s dirty streets and swallows all their history, contradiction and violence.

Thayil makes little to no attempt to catch you up should you get lost. You don’t always know where you are or whom you’re with. Far from frustrating the reader (well, this reader, anyway), this has the effect of sealing the book’s authenticity and obliterating any temptation to exoticise a foreign place.

Big questions are asked and left unanswered, floating off into the smoke, now unimportant. Rage and apathy elegantly mingle in highly evocative language.

I did wonder when it strayed into philosophy whether it attempted too much. It can, at times, come across as over-intellectualising, if that makes sense – as if it’s trying a little too hard. Perhaps this says more about my own state of mind than about the book itself.

Yet, when it descriptively smacks the spot, it smacks it solidly. Narcopolis simply does not read like a first novel. We feel the dull ache of loneliness that pervades the book. We slide into the release of a fix. We succumb to the agony and meaninglessness of Dimple’s castration. We are there.

There are six of us reviewing the books on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Check out this linky at mummy rates it to read the others.

I’ve also added it to the Mums and Me’s “Me Time Monday” linky because reading definitely counts as a luxury when parenting small children.