Book Review: 2012 Shortlisted: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis (Reviews #2 & #3)

 Jackie’s Rating: 3
 Penny’s Rating: 3
 A Novel by Jeet Thayil
 2012 / 292 Pages

Get ready for a drug induced ride!! Narcopolis is a novel that begins with a 7 page run on sentence that will likely scare off many a reader! It takes place in the underground world of opium dens in 1970’s Bombay, India. It chronicles the lives of some of the patrons and employees of Rashid’s– renowned for having the “best smoke on Shuklaji Street”. This book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is therefore part of our BookerMarks collaborative. We’ve done the podcast (which you can listen to here) and have been singing Men At Work’s Down Under ever since! This will be another Jackie and Penny  joint review.

Jackie’s Review:

This was one I was not jumping up and down to read. I read Irving Welch’s Trainspotting a very long time ago and thoroughly disliked it– drug addiction to the extreme of being a culture of its own is a dirty, dirty business and a dirty, DIRTY read and I was not looking forward to doing it again. I was surprised to like this one a heck of a lot better– mostly because it was not written in phonetic Scottish but also because of the endearing character of Dimple– a professional opium pipe operator and smoker who was also a eunuch prostitute with a heart of gold.

Dimple came across a simple “girl” who knew her lot in life. She was given up by her mother and then castrated at a very young age for the purpose of a kinky choice in the brothels of Old Bombay. Despite her lot in life she teaches herself to read and tries to be a good person. She is haunted by the one promise could not keep to Mr. Lee, a Chinese opium addict who sort of “adopts” Dimple in the later years of his life. He acts almost as a father figure to her as he teaches her the art of opium smoking. Dimple’s journey from everyone’s favourite pipe tender at Rashid’s to her burka wearing days as Rashid’s Zeenat; from her stint at rehab to her rapid decline is fascinating and were the parts I looked forward to the most as I read. Other characters such as Rashid himself, Rumi, the abusive husband, Dom the narrator of the story and Bengali the den’s accountant were not as fully developed or as interesting as Dimple but they were enough to keep your interest. I do agree with Elizabeth’s review that the opium pipes themselves were also a central character and this book wouldn’t be the same without them!

After discussing this book with my fellow BookerMarkers I did decide to do as Michelle planned to do– re-read the 7 page ranting prologue– Something For The Mouth. Starting off a book with a 7 page sentence, as I said, is enough to scare off anyone but after the reread it I found that I did appreciate what it was trying to accomplish a little bit better. It had a rhythmic timbre as you read, extremely poetic and yes, it gave you an overall feeling of breathing in and out the opium smoke. I don’t think it would have worked as an ending but perhaps they should add the recommendation to re-read it at the end– it really did tie things up nicely. 3 stars for me as I pass the pipe to Penny…

Penny’s Review:

Chuckles!! 🙂 Excellent intro over to my review Jackie! Thank you. My review will be very short.  This has already been reviewed previously by all our fellow BookerMarks collaborators and there really isn’t much more for me to say. Elizabeth was first to delve in to this seedy world and therefore I knew what was coming, and as Jackie noted above, I definitely was NOT jumping up and down to read this one. This is a book I would never consider reading. I do shamelessly judge a book by its cover, and this one, (although Jackie has used an alternative cover – this one above is far better!) along with the knowledge of what is contained between the cover is simply not my type of novel I willingly reach out for. I think Karli’s review for BookerMarks was very well written and summarizes wonderfully what the story encapsulated but also my same thoughts and feelings about it. Therefore nothing more could be added by me, so I’ll let you re-read it here if you like.

And, as every single BookerMarks judge has done before me, I’ve given it 3 stars as well. Lovely writing albeit a subject I wish to not expand my knowledge on any further. 🙂 Sorry!

This review was posted on 10/14/2012 on BookerMarks.

Book Review: 2012 Longlisted: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

I have just emerged from Jeet Thayil’s drug-ridden nightmare, and I have to say that I’m pleased to be back.

Longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize, this novel is an unflinching exploration of the underworld of Old Bombay.  Hookers, pimps, street vendors, pushers, artists and eunuchs litter the filthy streets.  Dogs run in packs, murderers prowl dark corners, and opium dens are routinely busy with varying sorts of clientele.  In short, life on Shuklaji Street is a misery, but its residents know no better.  There are no loftier expectations.

I must start the review by admitting that I was tainted by the novel’s prologue.  The book got off to a poor start with me, because it was a 7-page sentence.  That’s correct; a run-on sentence that stretched for 7 pages, exhausting the use of the comma.  Truly, there’s an effective way of communicating a stream of consciousness while simultaneously employing the period.  A period gives the reader’s mind a breath.  It permits one to digest.  This is especially important if you wish for your reader to fully grasp a world that is unthinkable, and detestable at best.

Thankfully, the novel discovers proper punctuation in the first chapter, and the journey begins.  Looking back to the thriving opium dens of the 1970s, Narcopolis offers a clear and often brutal glimpse into the hazy experience of a drug induced nod.  The characters are not personable, but each has his or her own plight.  A female prostitute (who used to be male) was the book’s most emotional figure.  “Dimple” never seemed to question her plight, which therefore gives the reader ample opportunity to do it for her.  She seemed to be the most human of the characters, demonstrating loyalty and regret.

She stared upwards without blinking and the thing he would remember later was the look in her eyes, there was no light in them, not even the reflected light of the streetlamp.  He thought: this is a woman who understands death.  She has tasted the meat of it and it pleases her.  The thought frightened him and he walked past her without stopping.

Dimple is surrounded by savagery, yet it does not faze her.  I would suggest that this was a form of self-preservation, but it’s also obvious that she is not afraid of her fate.  People enter her life.  Some affect her, others do not.  The book explores some of these people more than others, and the result is often a fleeting portrait of a pimp, john, student or criminal.  The book’s opium pipes were characters as well, oddly enough, as they moved from user to user.  It may strike you that the pipes are offered greater care than almost all of the book’s inhabitants put together.  They also last longer.

Jeet Thayil writes with great purpose.  While the subject matter is unpleasant from start to finish, Narcopolis does an impressive job depicting an unholy time in Bombay.  Readers will surely come away from this debut novel understanding a very base side of life; one which makes no apology or attempt to make circumstances palatable.  It’s not an easy read, but at the same time, it’s a powerful novel of observations.  Needless to say, it does not pull punches, and does not offer the reader a break.  When hallucinations are your characters’ best moments, you know that the resulting story will revolve around chaos.

Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but I would be remiss if I did not commend the prose.  The altered state of Narcopolis is interesting, but is not something that I would seek in a novel again.

3 stars.