This book opens with a seven page long sentence. It is the literary equivalent of the single tracking shot in Cinema – think the opening of Robert Altman’s film adaptation of The Player (which features an eight-minute tracking shot). It is the kind of thing that gets critics crowing and fawning, and when done well can be a thing of beauty – which is the case with The Player. But it is also a gimmick: It is there to say, look at me, aren’t I clever and cool, which is fine, but it does mean that you need to back it up with other things.
As was the case with The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, this is a book that creeps up on you and (for me at least) only really started to draw me into the underworld of Bombay and its tale of opium dens, brothels and addiction after I was half way through the Novel. The novel’s heart is Rashid’s open den, and all the narrative strands of the book lead off from and often return to this place. Those strands include Mr Lee, a Chinese soldier, son of a dissident writer and a communist zealot mother, and Dimple, a eunuch prostitute, in search of beauty, who makes pipes in the opium den.
It is also a book that spends a lot of time talking about and describing both the drug taking process and the experiences of those taking drugs. It is no surprise to learn, after reading the beautiful and evocative prose, that the author was an addict for 20 years. However, if I have a criticism of the book it is that there does seem to be too much of it, meaning its power and beauty began to lose some of its lustre for me as the novel went on. I also found some early parts of the story quite unengaging and a bit of a struggle.
This is certainly the type of book that used to have ‘Booker’ winner written all over it, and I’m sure it will be shortlisted. Would I do so …???