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Monday, July 6, 2009

What I'm Reading: The White Tiger

I recently listened to Aravind Adiga's Booker prize winning first novel, The White Tiger and was blown away. I read a lot of books, but The White Tiger impressed me on so many levels. The imagery and descriptions were vivid enough that I literally felt, smelled, and heard the action. Adgia presented a believable story about the contradictions of modern India, a place where the old caste system butts heads with modern capitalism on a day-to-day basis.

What I enjoyed the most was how Adiga chose to tell his story of modern India. Our narrator, Balram Halwai spends seven nights recording his life story on a tape he is ostensibly planning on sending to the Prime Minister of China in anticipation of his trip to India. Balram is literally speaking to us, sharing his experiences, but also the experiences of those around him. Also, I listened to this book, and since it is written as if it is an audio recording, it worked very well as an audio book.

Before I begin with some plot details, this book has a big limiter. Balram tells us early in the book that he killed his boss and is unrepentant about it. He tells the reader this important information right at the start, and some readers may be turned off by a main protagonist who is an unapologetic killer. However, in this reader's opinion, Adiga builds Balram up so well throughout the novel that I kept thinking that maybe he lied, and he really didn't kill his boss. I wanted to believe in him so much. Personally, in the end, it was not an issue for me, but it could very easily be a huge issue for some readers.

Balram's life begins in the country as a poor boy. Through his natural curiousity and unwillingness to accept his lot in life, he gets a job as a second driver for a rich land owner. After black mailing the 1st driver, Balram gets promoted and is sent to Delhi with the land owner's son, Mr. Ashok. From what I can tell, Mr. Ashok's main job is to bribe politicians so that his family does not have to pay taxes. Balram drives Mr. Ashok around Delhi and learns the ways of the city. He begins to resent the caste system and Mr. Ashok's ways. He realizes he will never be a free man unless he kills Mr. Ashok.

After a brutal murder scene, Balram escapes with a bag of money and his nephew to Bangalore where he uses all he has learned working for Mr. Ashok to start an extremely successful start-up, running a taxi service for the call center workers. It should also be noted that Balram knows his actions will cause the death (read: murder) of his entire family back home.

The bulk of this book takes place in Delhi. Balram explains the people and places of this chaotic city. He describes the ways of the rich, their servants, and the poor on the streets. We see the traffic, confusion, and "democracy" of modern India. The level of detail is amazing. Yet the story moves swiftly.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted though. There are real problems and tradegies described here. But it is an authentic experience. There is more dark than light here, but some good does shine through. Despite all he has done, it is hard not to like Balram. I literally laughed out loud at times. But you must always remember, he may not be the most reliable narrator.

Readalikes: Those who liked the movie Slumdog Millionaire and/or the novel which the movie was based on, Q and A by Vikas Swarup will enjoy The White Tiger. Conversely, those who were turned off by the extreme poverty and and general "unfairness" in Slumdog Millionaire, should stay away from The White Tiger as it could be described as Slumdog Millionaire on steroids.

Two books I have read and written about that are excellent readalike options for readers who enjoyed the Indian setting are The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. My account of our book group's discussion of The Inheritance of Loss has quite a few more readalikes, including nonfiction options.

When I was searching for readalikes for The White Tiger on NoveList today, I noticed that the book discussion guide for the novel suggests trying Ralph Ellison's American classic, Invisible Man. This suggestion intrigues me. I think it would be an excellent choice for readers who wanted to read more about forgotten people.

The contradictions and problems of modern India often remind me of the current situation in China. In fact, The White Tiger itself draws this comparison. A good suggestion for those who enjoyed The White Tiger, and are willing to exapand to a Chinese setting, is The Banquet Bug by Geling Yan.

Finally, in my years of serving leisure readers, I have found that the list of Man Booker winners is a readalike category onto itself. For most major awards this is not the case, but for some reason, people who like one Booker winner, seem to like them all. Here is a link to past winners.

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