Title: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Publisher: Oakhill Publishing Ltd 
ISBN: n/a (mp3 download)
Length: 8hrs, 15mins (unabridged)
I have almost given up following awards for books because, increasingly, my response to the winning novels is something along the lines of “what the….?” It was with some trepidation therefore that I tackled the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize. I have little faith in this particular prize for several reasons not least of which is the observation that their website is utterly devoid of useful information like which books have won the prize each year. You have to go to Wikipedia for that. Such technological incompetence (or arrogance or whatever it is) grates on my nerves. More worryingly though is that the prize has been awarded to four of the worst books I have ever read including the indecipherable True History of the Kelly Gang (written deliberately without punctuation or grammar) (or characters or plot or a grain of sense in my humble opinion). The only redeeming feature of the entire exercise is that in 1982 the prize was given to Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, a truly beautiful novel, but one decent decision 26 years ago doesn’t fill me with confidence.
In spite of all this I decided to read The White Tiger after hearing the author on a BBC interview. Actually I decided to listen to it (not because I wouldn’t have read it but I happened to have an audible credit and nothing else took my fancy). For once (or for twice if I’m being totally fair) those Booker folks got it right. It is funny and sad and thought-provoking and entertaining and informative. In short it’s a thoroughly great read.
Structurally the book is a work of art. Balram Halwai, an Indian man, writes a series of emails to the Chinese Premier who is due to visit India soon. The letters reveal his personal history, and that of the broader society, in a haphazard but very engaging way. The tale of how Balram went from being the son of a rickshaw driver to one of Bangalore’s most promising entrepreneurs is a kind of modern-day fable explored in the wider context of the massive changes taking place in India in recent history. Balram is a deeply complex character who at times I adored and at other times abhorred. But I always wanted to find out what he would do next.
There is sadness in this book. If the imagery created by Balram’s description of his father’s death doesn’t touch your heart then it’s quite probable you don’t have one. But, crucially, that emotion doesn’t overwhelm the reader. There is also light and humour and, because of those things, the darker themes of the book, such as the impact of corruption on various strata of society and the gaping chasm between the lives lived by rich and poor, are more powerful than would be the case if the tone was consistently bleak. I can still recall reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (nearly 25 years ago now) which also tells of the truly awful things that happen to people who live in poverty but does so in such a way as to leave readers (well me) burdened with an overwhelming sense of despair and a desire to never consider the subjects raised by the book again. For me a work of fiction must entertain and engage first and foremost and only then will I consider any broader issues that the author may choose to raise.
The White Tiger is well-written with rich observational details about a fascinating place in a time of social upheaval. At times it made me laugh and at others made me gasp and sometimes I sighed with sadness. But, most importantly of all, it was absolutely engrossing from start to finish.
My rating 5/5
Audio book specific comments: Excellent narration by professional acress Bindya Solanki. I wondered if I would be be turned off by the fact she’s female given that the story is narrated in the first person by a male but after about 5 minutes I completely forgot about the gender difference.
This is one of those books that I keep seeing great reviews about, I’ve picked it up numerous times in the bookstore, but I just can’t convince myself that it will be worth reading. Maybe the audio version would be a good way to go.
Well she does do a great job with the narration and I always think first person narratives make excellent audio books so I would recommend it. But then I would recommend this book in any format you can get it in. It surprised the heck out of me.
I feel the same way you do. Not necessarily about this particular book (which I haven’t read) or this particular award (Booker-prize) but in general when it comes to book-awards and prizes. Those I have tried (and none comes to mind of course, so I can’t even name one) which were big winners of this or that huge prize always seemed to be the worst reads ever. But your review for this one sounds like it is a very good read, and if my TBR wasn’t already enormous, I would be tempted to put this one on it as well.
Have a great weekend 🙂
I just finished this last night. I have to say I picked it up after rave reviews, and for the first 100 pages, I was confused. It wasn’t a bad book, it was good, but it wasn’t worth raving over. Then there’s a scene where Balram brushes his teeth…and you know it’s about to get good. I loved this book and especially love Balram’s explanations about his history at the end. If you haven’t convinced yourself to read it yet, give it a shot!
Louise sometimes I think the judges go out of their way to pick stuff no one will understand. I know what you mean about TBR piles though – mine keeps growing even though I am trying to read more than I acquire. Sigh.
That’s interesting Meg. I would normally not keep going if a book hadn’t grabbed me by about page 75 so in your case I wouldn’t have finished the White Tiger. Luckily for me it grabbed me from the outset. Thanks for stopping by.
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I really enjoyed The White Tiger. Like you, I was hesitant because I have been burned by literary award winners before (why must they always be so dense and depressing?), but this story grabbed me from very early on.
Balram was a wonderful character. At times I felt so sympathetic and other times totally appalled by him and his actions. The need to find out what he did next kept me turning pages.
I now have Adiga’s latest book, Between the Assassinations, on my TBR pile and I am hoping for another great read.