Posted by: Ele Quigan | September 29, 2012

Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil

Holidays, they’re my favourite pastime. Be it rushing around on a weekend city break, to wandering around ancient cities like Rome/Ephesus/Angkor Wat to just chilling out near a beach – seriously there’s nothing better. However in saying that there’s one small issue for me when I’m on holidays, and that’s being an unusually fast reader (one dear old work colleague affectionately nick-named me Johnny 5 after seeing how quick I managed to get through some banner copy and delivering feedback.

I can easily finish a book in a few hours, I’ve always had the terrible habit of reading until a book is finished, often well into the night. Now my trusty iphone is to blame with all of the information on the Internet to absorb each night…

So back to the holiday. This time, 9 days in the greek islands. I took 6 books. I finished them by day 4.

One stuck out a lot more than the others, Narcopolis, about an opium den, in old Bombay.

Drug fiction is always interesting. Always dark, not always honest, dealing with the concept of drugs, their glory, their inevitable lushness and richness of storytelling. Their desolate hope, their impending dispair. Their habits and addictions, their beauty and hatred, their raw naked emotion.

This was no less the same. For some reason I’d never considered India a common place for an opium den, and his story surrounds characters in and around the den. From Dimple an ex-prostitute eunuch, to Mr Lee the Chinese man who escaped the cultural revolution, to Rashid the den owner, to Dom – the inevitable drug touris – the story is many layered, interestingly structured, and a times has a dreamy undertone sweeping through it.

Of all the drugs in all the world Heroin, Opium, not really on my list to try. They sound dangerously addictive, and while relaxing in a sense, and almost creative? I still think it’s not my bag. Kubla Khan, written post an Opium session, the many rockstars and authors with an opiate addiction while remaining creative (I’m looking at you STP front man Scott Weiland) make me think occasionally maybe it’s worth trying? But I’ve read too many sad/scary stories – the interweb usual comment is ‘Not even once’.

But beyond the drugs, I still didn’t feel like it was a ‘drug novel’? It’s not ‘the Indian trainspotting’, it’s not ‘The Bombay opus’ (have these people not read anything by Salman Rushdie?!) it’s on its own, and should be treated as such. And in saying that, deserves way more than the miserable 3 stars and 9 reviews it’s had on Amazon to date.

So if that’s that’s the case, what made this book so good? I dunno, maybe it was the holiday, maybe it was the way it was written, but this was absolutely the best book I’ve read this year. The characters were rich, the background even richer, and while the inevitable conclusions were both sad as lives, loves and even the drugs change, I picked it back up to reread towards the end of the trip and it make for an even better story the second time in.



  1. […] a sucker for a nice cover. Paper stock, vintage colouring, the last book that felt similar was Narcopolis (which I adored) – so I was intruiged by the cover. Subject matter – we’ve all […]

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