Lion by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose.
New American Library imprint, Penguin Random House, 2013.
Adult memoir, 273 pages + photo inserts.
NOTE: Previously published under the title A Long Way Home.
Born into an impoverished but loving family in rural India, Saroo accompanied his brother to a nearby train station and got lost, ending up asleep on a train which took him to Calcutta. Six emotional months later, he was adopted into an Australian family, the Brierleys. Along the way, he told many people his story. Some didn’t believe him, others tried to take advantage of him, but none were able to find his family based on his five-year old recollections.
As an adult with the help of Google Earth, he began an obsessive search to find his home town. Twenty-five years after he got lost, he came home again. But is any of his family still there?
This was, once again, a fully random Target pick. There was a brown person on the cover, so I bought it knowing nothing about the book. Reading the blurb, it dealt with international adoption which is a topic of interest to me. Certainly the story is very unique. The book begins with a teaser prologue which gives it away – near the empty shell of his old home, he finds somebody who says he’ll take Saroo to his mother.
Lion then introduces Saroo to us and takes us through all his precious childhood memories of India and his family. We journey with him through his traumatic loss and separation from his family and hometown, marvel with him as a rural five-year old stays alive and relatively unharmed on the streets of Calcutta, and travel to the police station with a helpful teenager, then a large group housing center. He shares with us the wonders of the home where they searched for his family (never knowing how far he had traveled and how long he survived on the streets) and finally made him available for adoption by an Australian couple.
He then detours into a brief history of his parents and why his mother felt so strongly about adoption based on her own personal experiences, before talking about his experiences moving to Australia and his life leading up to the search. Honestly, he was just an ordinary person who a string of amazing things happened to, and that very much comes across in the book.
The copy I got from Target is apparently the movie tie-in edition, but I wish when they changed the cover they had also changed the text of the book which made references to the cover, as I had to hunt through the pictures in the middle of the book to find the photograph referred to.
One thing that really struck me was the role technology played in the book. Google Earth, and later a Facebook group, were crucial to Saroo finding his home. This technology was not available when he was first lost which raises some interesting questions for discussion. If Google Earth had been available, would Saroo’s adoptive parents have helped him to find his hometown? What would have happened if he did? It’s clear from the book that his family had a better socioeconomic status with fewer children, yet it’s also clear that they loved him and deeply missed him. Even outside of the large role technology played in his search, he seems to feel oppressed by the electricity running through his old hometown, which changes the way things look to him. Yet technology is once again a saving grace that allows him to maintain contact with his two families no matter where he is, Australia or India.
Spoilers Another detail that was so poignant to me was the name. At five years old, suffering from extreme hunger and major trauma, Saroo mispronounced his own name. This is where the new title of the book comes from. He was actually named Sheru, which is the Hindu word for lion. Another moment that really touched me was when his first mother makes a point of thanking his adoptive mum, and stating that she is his real mother now because she raised him. /end of spoilers.
Overall, this was an inspirational, feel-good book. It was certainly memorable but that was due to the story, not especially compelling writing or a particular interest in the poor ordinary guy who became internationally famous because of his story. Although I did enjoy reading this book, I am hesitant to give it a blanket recommendation because I feel like it could harm some groups of people if they read it without preparation. Saroo lived out the greatest fantasy of many adoptees, and his intensive searching paid great dividends in his life without shaking his sense of self. He wrote this book to give hope to those who continue searching, but one also wonders when the point was that he would have stopped or felt it reasonable to stop. Even in this book where so many questions were miraculously answered, there still remain questions, and the reality is that for many children their journeys will be much harsher and more painful than his, or filled with more unanswered questions.
Despite the possible dangers he faced and the starvation and traumatic separation from his birth family, overall Saroo led an incredibly lucky life. He touches on the differences between his story and his brother’s or that of other children who were adopted from the same orphanage, but I wonder how much of that would come across to someone not at all connected to the adoption world. While I am deeply grateful to Saroo for sharing his personal journey with the world, I would only recommend this book cautiously and with reservations to those whom it would not harm.