Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Almost a week after the publication of the Booker Longlist I have completed reading the first in my chosen list of six. The White Tiger is Adiga's debut novel and is a book I was unaware of until its appearance in the list.

The story is narrated by Balram Halwai, born into the "Darkness" of Northern India, Balram becomes a servant to the wealthy Mr Ashok. The novel is constructed as a series of letters in which we come to learn how Balram maneuvers his way from servitude to entrepreneurship in India's "new economy". 

This book is a tough one for me to review. I feel relatively ambivalent about it. The first half of the novel is solid and engrossing - we learn about Balram's family, his struggle to escape life in the village. It is powerful stuff, well written and amusing. However approaching the final 3rd I found myself wearying of Balram's story and the inevitability of the ending. We learn early on that Balram will murder his master Mr Ashok. I was finding myself just wanting him to get on with it...It is a shame because I think the premise had plenty of potential for some real insights into modern India.

My main problem with The White Tiger, was a lack of subtlety. There is a very dark and vicious edge to this story which I found unsettling.  Everyone has an angle, is on the take, or has a scheme of some kind. I got a little depressed by this view of humanity by the end of the novel. There was a kind of ugliness to this world which really jarred with me. I guess I was looking for a tiny hint of light mixed with the shade.

On the positive side, there is certainly humor in this novel and a lightness of tone which makes it quick and entertaining to read. I can't deny that this is like no other Indian novel I have read - Adiga certainly has a distinctive voice and perspective. Balram is an interesting character, amusing and mischievous. As he reveals his life story you do get pulled in. Life in the Darkness is hard, few make it out, the bonds of servitude and family are hard to break.  You want Balram to succeed but does the end justify the means?

In summary, I think this is a good debut novel from an author with potential, but I would not back it for the shortlist at this point.

I think my feelings for the novel are encompassed by these reviewers ....

"The White Tiger resembles the stories in Murder Weekly. It is quick, entertaining and full of vividly drawn types: the scheming servant, the corrupt businessman, the spoilt wife. Its lack of subtlety can be wearying, as can its cynicism. But it is a useful counter to optimistic tales of India's roaring economy." -Times Literary Supplement

"Yes, it's fresh, funny, different, and it will please those looking for insights into contemporary India, but The White Tiger offers something less than it might have achieved." - The Washington Post

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