I am really struggling with where to start with this review for I am really unsure of what I think. This may seem a peculiar statement having just read through the story quite happily, willingly and contentedly, but I can’t quite fathom the pondering, I can’t quite shelve it in the right place. I actually finished the book on Saturday and it has taken sometime to try and put a voice to the semi-formed bubbles of opinion which bob in and out of mind. I am not a critic. I don’t review books in any form of professional manner or question myself on a text to produce something eloquent and intelligent for you here. Far from it. I like things simple. I usually find it easy to explain in my blunt northern manner, what was good and bad about a novel and whether I would recommend it. My book reviews tend to be heavily opinionated and based purely on my own, unique experience. I expect I miss crucial details and plot metaphors, but I doubt this is ruining my basic ability to follow a story through to its conclusion, it certainly doesn’t ruin my enjoyment. So why then, has Aravind Adiga’s intriguing novel stumped me so?
It would be a lie to suggest I haven’t enjoyed reading this, because clearly I have. I just don’t really know why as Balram Halwai, our narrating protagonist biographic letter-writer is uniquely unlikeable, like nothing I have ever read before. I cannot fathom as to whether he is intellectually challenged with a very misguided sense of his mental capacity (a fool, in other words) or something altogether much more sinister. This unlike-ability is very clearly the author’s intention, there was obviously something more important to relate. And so come the possible reasons for my debated opinion.
For me this book was highly educational and has very much made me think. I know little about life in India, I still don’t know much but I have a basic understanding now of the entrenched layers of everyday life, politics and society; the constant treadmill of degradation and humiliation and suffering that many people experience. With the onset of industrial revolutions through history, class divides have mutated; no longer lords and masters with their underlings, but a whole spectrum of position which one must be placed into. As Consumerism and Capitalism take hold, as the ability to better your position becomes freer and more accessible, the layers break a little, causing a vapid void of middle-classness which does neither ‘make’ nor ‘manage’ in the same respect as the old layers. There is a supposed common ground, there is choice and a wider Socialist sense of equality (in some respects); a better life for all. In theory.
In India, there is no choice unless you have the rank and bank account to follow your chosen star. The Caste system is an ancient one which is still living today. Each person, often based on the given surname, is condemned to a caste – a level or layer in the social ranking which takes more than hard graft and aspiration to evolve from. Balram likens the caste system to a zoo – everything kept where it belongs, no cross contamination, orderly, safe and more or less content due to a lack of social aspiration. That is until the British left in 1947. Then, the cages were opened and the massacres began. According to The White Tiger, the layers inevitably mutated but only to provide two options, two destinies if you will: eat – or get eaten up. Balram prefers the social cages of older regimes, but like many, seen as the doors have been flung open, he may as well attempt his own, intrepid climb. He was a tiger with an appetite.
The story follows Balram (aka The White Tiger – one on his own) and his frustrations as he fights his own path in becoming a social ‘entrepreneur’; from out of the Darkness and into the Light. His ascent is a strange story and for a long time I was waiting for him to get to the point. You know from the blurb already that Balram’s path leads him not only to contemplate the darker sins of life but to actively commit them, but it feels like there is a lot of waffle in getting to these crucial moments. However, I was naïve. The purpose of the narrative was not to shock and dismay at these singular events, it is not a thriller. It was to understand the changes in a person, the efforts and the strains of an individual who is fighting for so much more; a slow bubble ad burn which builds to fever pitch, exploding like so many thousand fireworks. There is a necessity to understand his position and the desperation which is caused by this desire to choose – something in our western world which is taken very much for granted. Balram’s world, the true world of India, has not evolved as ours. Effectively, Balram has suffered a very personal war with a variety of devils, taking many forms and regardless of the consequences, resolutely fights on. But as with any rise to ‘power’ the levels of darkness in which to sink seem deeper and muddier than ever imagined. Balram’s cage has opened, his choices granted but at the cost of everything human and decent.
Yet I think what amazed me most is the fact that there is no real attempt to redeem our narrator. There are very few books in which the lead is pretty much despicable, and I still maintain, a little bit thick. I do not believe Balram to be a smart man, I don’t believe him to be a completely heartless man either. Technically he has some very admirable qualities: commitment to a cause, aspiration, confidence, passion, motivation, bloody-minded determination, but they are applied in less than admirable ways. As a book it is completely fascinating. You can totally understand and thoroughly believe how he has become a criminal but there is absolutely no guilt involved – Balrma Halwai is cold blooded, calculating and without remorse. It is this mentality which I cannot get my head around but secretly I quite like the fact that I really despise everything that he is. It is an entirely new experience for me!
I think actually it is a book I am likely to read again. Having reached its conclusion and embarked upon my own philosophical break down of the narrative (Balram fancies himself as something of an amateur philosopher also, I feel) I would like to absorb it again. I suspect I shall pick upon and notice different aspects of the texts, reading meaning into the supposed additional waffle which I did not on my first venture, adding depth and timbre to a story which has not stopped occupying my attention.
So for a book I didn’t know how to review I think I have managed to mention many a complicated thought – without actually telling you anything about the story. I seem to only have complimentary things to say yet I am still feeling a little lost – I suspect because it has not left me with the well rounded sense of contentment that stories usually provide, again something quite novel and intriguing. So I have had to dispense of all the highbrow comments and thoughts (highbrow as far as I am concerned!), cut through all my imaginings of point and purpose, to ask three very simple questions:
Did I enjoy the book? Yes, quite clearly.
Have I learnt something new? Yes. Historically and culturally speaking, but also how a book can break away from pre-conceived moulds and evolve into a rather clever, very different and ultimately refreshing, beast.
Would I recommend this book? Yes. It is definitely a book which causes contemplation. My waffled thoughts in this review may be completely off the mark, but a best-selling story which causes one to consider their position in the world, and consider the many varied shades of necessary darkness, is certainly one to be experienced. I suspect a wide spectrum of opinion develops from reading this book, certainly more complicated than Marmite syndrome. But that in itself a beautiful little metaphor for all which it is trying to say. Life is all about those differences, and the choices which create them.
(On the flip side, I could have imagined it all. It could be absolutely none of the above and have no such purpose in provoking conversation. In which case The White Tiger could be perceived as being absolute tosh! Read it and let me know what you think. See, even now, I am confused!)