When he took a drag his cheeks appeared to cave in. He had become very thin and it seemed to Lee that his father no longer resembled a human being. He was a pipe attached to a head with stick arms and legs. Or he was an inanimate object, a piece of knobbed wood, a walking stick or polished figurine.
Right from the moment Trish mentioned about Narcopolis via the TLC Book Tours, I was hooked. I loved how well the title covers the essence of the book - this truly is about the city of O: about Bombay whose underbelly bore witness to the reign of opium and heroin, and also about the drugs themselves as a metaphorical city. I also loved that this was set in India, but the writing hasn't been "Americanized" so much so that an Indian like me may find it hard to relate to. And on top of it, I was looking forward to reading about this subject matter - about the drug-obsessed sector of Bombay, that I had not yet had a chance to read or learn about, other than always hearing vague hints of how it's all there but not really seeing some concrete proof.
Narcopolis was a strange kind of book, and I mean strange in a good way. It was unconventional, it was different, and it was just as stimulating and entrancing as the characters found themselves to be in after smoking opium. And that is this book's strength. The author was not afraid of taking a path that I haven't seen tread that often. For instance, he describes in many places the experience of smoking opium so well that I almost felt as if I was doing it, even though I don't know anything about what taking drugs feels like. Although he never glorified it in the sense that he was coaxing the reader to try it, he didn't try to mince the descriptions or honey out the language to make it feel less overwhelming or inauthentic.
The setting of this book is a time period well understood to be the time when the hippie movement was in full swing, drugs were the in thing and there were plenty of opium and heroin dens with business booming. Narcopolis is set against that backdrop with the narrator's voice and the actions of the other characters nicely evoked that culture. Thayil's writing is also stellar. It has a poetic and lyrical feel that went very well with the type of story he was trying to say.
At the same time, Narcopolis isn't all dreamy and drowsy and poetry. Since it is set in slums and the red light streets and poverty-ridden areas, the unclean aspects of human lives are also well explored. It is quite fascinating going from the dreamy world of drugs and springing down hard on the messy unappealing real world, but Jeet Thayil makes that transition feel very natural. The vast number of characters all add their idiosyncrasies to the story line - that is shared between them, as each battle their personal demons and troubles with opium being the book's primary character.
Rue arrived and messed up every definition of normalcy that I ever had, but whenever I got the time to read the book, I found myself totally hooked by it - right from the 6-page single-sentence prologue all the way to the end.
I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.