Friday, August 12, 2016

#FridayReads - Shantaram

Mumbai, photo by Ben Garrison, via Flickr
To kick off our new #FridayReads segment and tie in to August’s The Heat is On theme, I thought I would introduce our Blood-Red Pencil readers to a fellow Australian – Gregory Smith, aka Gregory David Roberts, aka “The Gentleman Bandit”, aka Shantaram.

Roberts’ real-life story is crazy enough - he robbed banks, politely, with a toy pistol while wearing a three-piece suit, was caught, convicted, and sentenced to 23 years in prison, broke out of jail MacGyver-style in broad daylight, fled the country with police hot on his tail, and ended up living in a slum in Mumbai, India.

Shantaram is Roberts’ heavily-fictionalized account of the decade when he seemingly vanished from the face of the earth. Arriving just as a devastating fire rips through a Mumbai slum, Marty-Stu the protagonist, driven by a Messiah-complex desire to atone for his crimes, opens a make-shift medical clinic (with just a first-aid course under his belt), infiltrates the Indian mafia, orchestrates a daring rescue, becomes a Bollywood agent and movie extra, and resorts to smuggling weapons into Afghanistan. If the idea of a Hulk Hogan lookalike taking on Bollywood makes you laugh, this book is for you. It’s not a beach read (at nearly 1000 pages, what it is is a work out), but it is as hot as an Indian curry, and, if you read it along with a large packet of salt, it’s alternately rollicking good fun, sweetly romantic, horrifically confronting, and tear-jerkingly moving. The protagonist might be a caricature, but the supporting cast is richly drawn and very memorable, and these characters and Roberts’ writing skill are what lift the book above one man’s attempt to explain and atone and nudge it into the literary sphere.

Photo by Ben Garrison, via Flickr
“One of the reasons we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.” ~ Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
The sequel to Shantaram, The Mountain Shadow, was published last year. Visit Gregory David Roberts on Amazon for details of both books.

Reviewed by Elle Carter Neal


  1. A thousand pages? This was no small undertaking. Kudos to the author! Rather than a leisurely bedtime read, Shantaram is a commitment to a lengthy story, albeit a fascinating one if it lives up to the review, which I'm pretty certain it would. I'm curious--in what way is the protagonist a caricature? And I'm intrigued by your description of the supporting cast. Does this mean I will buy the book? Perhaps. One final question, is the writer still on the run?

    1. Linda, not only is this version 1000 pages, but Roberts was forced to rewrite the entire manuscript a couple of times because he was writing it in prison and the guards found and destroyed the manuscript twice. He has done his time, as he was eventually captured when he attempted to travel to Germany.

      I found the protagonist at least partially a caricature because he turns into a bit of a superhero. Many of his escapades feel like they wouldn't be out of place in a Jean-Claude Van Damme or Bruce Willis action movie. One or two of these scenarios would have been okay, but he layers it on and on, fight scene after beat down after heroic action, until the suspension of disbelief is impossible to maintain. It's a caricature of the "bad boy" picked on because he looks tough, who can't catch a break no matter what he tries to do to turn his life around (it's always other people who won't leave him alone to get on with his life lawfully). A good editor would have made him pare this down in favour of the relationships and details of the other people he came in contact with who completely changed his perspective on various issues. Some of these characters were based on real people, and you can feel the deep and genuine love and respect the author has for these people - they changed his life dramatically.

  2. Definitely a story where truth is stranger than fiction. I have some of the same questions as Linda. Is he still in India, definitely a place where you can get lost?

    1. Yes, Polly, after serving his sentence he is again living in India where he now runs a charity.

  3. Sounds like an intriguing story, but 1000 pages? Can't make a commitment to that many since I still have limited reading time. Sigh....

    1. Maybe the audio book, Maryann? I didn't realise it was such a long book, as I read the Look Inside at Amazon and then downloaded it for Kindle because I was hooked. Definitely a page-turner.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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