Book Review: Last Man in Tower, by Aravind Adiga

Posted on 02 Jan 2014 under Essays

I am going to preface this review by saying that I’m probably not very good at writing book reviews. I don’t have a pattern or a format or a template. I write a book review like I write a blog post — open up WordPress, navigate to the New Post page and start typing. With the disclaimer out of the way, here we go:

I recently finished reading Aravind Adiga’s “Last Man in Tower”, a book I was excited about since I loved his debut novel – The White Tiger. What I recalled from his first effort was a story that spared no punches in telling it like it is. It was gritty and unapologetically uncomfortable, without being crass. It also featured an ending where good doesn’t necessarily triumph over evil. In fact, the characters were so well created that it becomes difficult to distinguish good from bad.

Cover art of Aravind Adiga's "Last Man in Tower"

Cover art of Aravind Adiga’s “Last Man in Tower”

And that is pretty much the case with Last Man in Tower. A brief synopsis — the story revolves around an old housing society (basically, an apartment building) in Mumbai in the late 90s (or early noughties), which gets selected by a big-time builder for redevelopment. He offers to buy out all the flats at above-market price, and everyone except one old former teacher agrees to sell the house. This former teacher, Masterji, is the protagonist, and the story revolves around how everyone else tries to influence, coerce and ultimately force him to sign over his flat to the builder.

The first half of the story moves slowly, introducing us to the various characters, allowing us to get under their skin, understand their backgrounds and empathise with them for the choices they make. It’s almost boring if you compare it to The White Tiger, which grabbed your attention from page one, and like any good story, didn’t let you go until you turned the last page. At this point, I was apprehensive that Mr Adiga’s sophomore effort may not live up to his debut. But as I progressed, I began to realize how crucial this slow half is. This is not the story of one man against a builder, or one man against his friends and neighbours. This is the story of human nature, of circumstances that affect people more than they think, and the changes that come about in people that only someone external, someone unaffected can truly recognize.

To be honest, Aravind Adiga is no Charles Dickens. The star of the show is not the writing, it’s the written. It’s the story, it’s the content, the destination rather than the journey. And in the second half of the book, once the builder’s deadline for acceptance approaches, the action starts escalating wildly. Various character suddenly perform actions that would previously have seemed incongruous with them. Put under pressure, people start behaving in ways they never thought they would. And we, the reader, being the external, unaffected third-party, get a front-row seat to witness all of this.

By the end of the story, all the loose ends (there aren’t too many of them) are tied up. But like any good book, the ending gives rise to more questions than it answers. Who are the heroes of this story? Who are the villains? Forgive me for relying on a cliché, but there truly are no characters that are purely black or white. All the characters are deep, well-formed and have multiple facets to their personality. And that’s where Mr Adiga truly shines as a writer.

If you’ve read The White Tiger, and that’s why you’ve picked this book up, don’t let the first half put you down. It gets better. All of the darkness, all of the slime of human nature that Aravind Adiga captured so deftly in the first book come out openly in the second half. Last Man in Tower, ultimately, is a well-paced story.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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