June 16, 2020

‘Narcopolis’ Book Review

By Carrie

The Timeliness and Relevance of Narcopolis

The opioid crisis is among the most pressing challenges that the US faces today. Every year, the country loses thousands of its citizens to opioids. In fact, in response to this crisis, the Trump administration has declared it a public health emergency. This declaration is intended to position the country to marshal all resources to protect its citizens against the devastating effects of the opioid crisis. However, given the slow pace of progress, it is highly likely that the crisis will remain part of the American situation for a little longer.

As the US struggles to address the opioid crisis, it can turn to Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis for guidance, direction and inspiration. As its title suggests, this book is about the ravages of opioid addiction. It explores the lives of various characters whose struggles with the opioid epidemic mirrors the current situation in the US. To derive the most insight from this book, readers should approach it with objectivity and sympathy for addicts. It offers a chilling account of how addiction steals dreams and replaces them with hopelessness, emptiness, and death.

Narcopolis Synopsis

The damage that opioids cause is the main message that Thayil communicates in Narcopolis. He is able to convey this message thanks to the numerous complex yet very human characters in the novel. The book is set in 1970s Bombay, a thriving city whose image is tainted by an opioid epidemic that has enslaved thousands. To set the stage for the often-depressing events that unfold in the book, Thayil indicates that Bombay thrives on opium addiction. This addiction makes possible the establishment of various illicit and underground industries such as prostitution and gambling.

It is difficult to believe that Narcopolis is Thayil’s first novel. The subject mastery as well as the story-telling prowess that he exhibits is usually reserved for authors with multiple published works. Thayil’s talent is best evidenced by the characters that he chose to include in the book. One would expect that given their struggles with addiction, the character would be flat and uninteresting. This is certainly not the case as Thayil manages to develop have multiple layers, rich lives, and help Thayil to maintain the interest of his readers.

As pointed out above, Narcopolis benefits hugely from the characters whose lives are interwoven and work together to knit a surprisingly engaging narrative. Mr. Lee is among the most interesting of these characters. A Chinese businessman, Mr. Lee shows that even in the darkest places, savvy individuals are able to find opportunities for profit. Rashid is another character that readers are sure to love and hate in equal measure. He owns an opium den which serves as the setting for much of what transpires in the book. Thayil exploits the voice of a nameless narrator to describe the events that take occur in the den and the larger Bombay. 

Why Narcopolis is special?

Thayil gives readers many reasons to pick up a copy of his book. His remarkable ability to use regular individuals to issue deeply rich remarks about the human condition is among these reasons. For example, among the key characters in the book is Rashid, a Muslim man who holds on to the ideals of his faith but is involved in the opium trade. Through Rashid, Thayil is able to enlighten readers about the power of opioids. These substances are so potent that they cause even the staunchest and most religious men to fall. 

How Thayil manages to tell a compelling story in a voice that is patient, neutral and passionate is another issue that makes Narcopolis special. Given the ugliness of the opioid epidemic, some readers may expect that the characters in the book would be portrayed as weak, and foolish. Instead of insulting the characters with such depictions, Thayil is empathetic. He presents these characters as unfortunate individuals who despite grappling with addictions manage to inject interest and excitement into their lives. These characters are the epitome of resilience.

While the opioid epidemic is the main subject that Narcopolis confronts, the novel also addresses other issues that are equally weighty. Religious tolerance is among these issues. According to Thayil, the Bombay of 1970s was a melting pot of different cultures. It created spaces for individuals from various faiths to find meaning and acceptance. From the Muslim man who operates an opium den to a Hindu who uses a church as his platform for communion with God, the novel is replete with characters who show that tolerance and accommodation can occur even in the darkest, most hopeless places that even god seems to have abandoned.

The journalistic approach that Thayil adopts for much of Narcopolis adds to the relevance, depth, and interest of this novel. Thayil moves beyond merely describing the 1970s, opioid-ravaged Bombay. His descriptions are rich with detail, color, and dimension. He guides reader through the often-confusing reality of Bombay, a city where no resident can claim to have been spared the ill effects of the opioid epidemic. While Narcopolis reads like a news report in some sections, the book does not forget to dig deeper into the experiences of characters, thereby offering readers an unredacted yet respectful and balanced look at Bombay.

The Turnoffs

For the most part, Thayil surprises readers with his talent and vision. However, there are some blunders that indicate that he is a novice writer for whom Narcopolis is the first published work. The very title of this novel is among its weakest points. The title gives away too much. Even before readers have engaged with the first few pages, they already have a fairly good understanding of what the book is about. Thayil should have made his readers work harder and forced them to read further before revealing the essence of the novel.

Fluff and page-fillers are other glaring mistakes that dent the quality and appeal of Narcopolis. For instance, there are some issues that Thayil discusses without showing how they add to the book. He essentially forces readers to feel that these issues were included to increase the book’s bulk. This novel could have been improved vastly had Thayil remained focused on his key message and resist the temptation to release a hefty book with some content whose value and necessity is questionable.

Another problem that could see readers skip Narcopolis is that the book could be accused of downplaying and even glamorizing the opioid crisis. While it is the case that Thayil shows how individual addicts have had their lives destroyed by the crisis, he also suggests that this crisis has fueled Bombay’s transformation into the thriving metropolis that it is today. In displaying his understanding that opioids are dangerous, Thayil should have been unequivocal and clearer by giving even more attention to the devastation that opioid addiction causes.

Should you read it?

Yes, those wishing to gain deeper insights into the reality of opioid addiction should read Narcopolis. This novel will certainly leave them feeling enlightened. The book could even benefit policy formulation as it provides an in-depth and accurate look into the opioid crisis. The book is also highly recommended for individuals who would like to reject the appeal of substance abuse but are facing serious hardship. Overall, Narcopolis is refreshing, truly inspired, and tremendously engaging.