I’ll get this out of the way from the outset: The White Tiger is the best novel I have read in years. Not one of the best. The best. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a piece of fiction so addictive that I tried to read it every chance I had, to the point where I actually looked forward to catching the subway in the mornings and after work just so I could read more. I almost walked into other people and objects numerous times because I was reading while walking. It’s that kind of book.
I originally purchased The White Tiger in 2009 at a book sale, but ashamedly I forgot about it (and to be honest didn’t have that much of an urge to read it) until recently, even though it had won the 2008 Man Booker Prize and received rave reviews as a debut novel from an Indian who grew up in Sydney and studied in New York and Oxford.
Still, I had grown tired of “literary” books and had been filling my head with trashy paperbacks disguised as “action” novels. For a while, I believed a fascinating and clever premise and lots of short chapters were the most important things in a novel, and because of that I lost of lot of interest in reading. How silly. The White Tiger, while also based on a terrific idea, shows there’s simply no substitute for awesome writing.
The story is told from the point of view of an intelligent but extremely poor boy called Balram, the son of a rickshaw puller, who grew up in rural India and later became a driver-slash-servant of a wealthy family. The story is revealed in a series of dictated letters to Chinese president Jiang Zemin, which in itself brought up a lot of interesting comparisons between India and China. The book is really a hilarious satire that pokes fun at India — mainly the rife corruption, religion, the relationship between master and servant, the appalling gap between the wealthy and destitute, the failures of its political system, and so on — but at the same time never feels false or contrived. Every character, even the caricatures, feel wonderfully authentic. It’s the best kind of satire — gut-bustingly funny and stingingly truthful at the same time.
The book’s greatest strength is its narrator, Balram, the self-proclaimed “White Tiger”, a rare animal that only comes along once in a generation. Balram is charming and articulate, wickedly perceptive and incredibly affable — but every now and then he slips up a little or reveals something that tells you he is not as sweet or simple as he looks, and that he is capable of some making some highly questionable moral judgments. By the end of the first chapter you will discover a shocking truth about Balram that changes everything, but Adiga cleverly uses this knowledge as a hook to keep readers reading. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Having been to India last year, I found myself chuckling and nodding at many of the little digs Adiga takes at Indian culture. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the book just as much even if I hadn’t been to India, but having witnessed some of the things first hand just made it that much easier to visualise the scenes.
Thanks to The White Tiger, I have really gotten back into reading quality, well-written books. I just wish more of them were like this one.
5 out of 5!