Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis (Review #6)

Rating: 3.5
Narcopolis
A Novel by Jeet Thayil
2012/292 Pages

When the Man Booker long list was released, I eagerly read the synopsis for each book and then listed them number one through twelve on a sheet of paper in the order in which I wanted to read them. Bringing Up the Bodies and Garden of Evening Mists topped my list of books I could not wait to read. Narcopolis was the very last book on my list. From the cover art to the description of the book, nothing attracted me to this book. I did not want to read it for any reason – ever; yet, it made the short list, so as part of the Bookermarks project, I would have to read it. 

Narcopolis is a book about opium and other hard drug use in India during the time period between 1980-2004. I will admit, I liked it better than I thought I would. The book begins with an odd 11 page run on sentence that at first really turns a person off of the book, especially after reading Umbrella by Will Self. Yet, that one sentence really ends up working in the context of the whole story and should be re-read at the end of the book as well. The author, Jeet Thayil, then begins introducing his well defined characters by describing various opium and heavy drug addicted individuals and their relationship with each other. The perspective and stories of the book alternate between several characters and even with their perversity are well drawn and in some cases the characters are quite likeable as I started to anticipate their next chapter.

During our Bookermarks podcast we discussed “how the characters would come and go like a wisp of smoke”. This is one of the literary devices Thayil used that I liked the most. Unlike Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng where the readers hand was held and led through the entire book, with Narcopolis, the reader is allowed to wonder around a little to discover who the voice of each chapter may be. Thayil uses this technique far better than Will Self’s Umbrella – in Narcopolis the reader can decipher the voice within a page or two and in Umbrella, the reader may have to read the book four times before the reader can figure out who is speaking.

My main issue with the book was its references to unnatural sex acts especially when used to “shock” the reader. I don’t think I am a prude, but there are just some things I would rather not read about and this is one book I would not be comfortable recommending to my mother or anyone else for that matter. However, read in its entirely, it is a disturbing; yet, fascinating picture of into the mind of those controlled by addiction.

With about 60 pages left in the book, I was leaning towards giving Narcopolis a rating of 2.5, but finishing the book and reflecting upon its merits and comparing it to the other Booker short-listed titles, I will give it a rating of 3.5.

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