Kim, the main character, is a boy of Irish descent living in India during the British empire in the 19th century. He's a ruffian, a jester, a street rat in Lahore. Then he befriends Teshoon Lama, a former abbot whose dream is to free himself from the Wheel of Things. Teshoon Lama is on a quest to find the River of the Arrow, and he and Kim find themselves in many adventures in their quest.
As the novel progresses, we witness how Kim grows from the unruly orphaned boy that he is to a chela (servant) of the lama, a student in an English school in Lucknow, a government appointee, a surveyor (a spy of sorts), and a key player in the battle between the British empire and the Russians. And this last role is where I have a problem with. I felt that Kim was never really offered a choice in his role as a spy. Everything was laid out for him to become one.
What I did like were the amusing parts where Kim and lama travel to many exotic locations in India. Also, I found their encounters with several characters (e.g., a prostitute, a sick child, a sorceress) charming. This is where Kipling's novel shines. As for the grand plot involving espionage, everything was like a blur. I would have preferred more details, more texture, on these parts of the novel.
Kim is still an entertaining read. Although one major aspect of my ambivalence toward is whether the novel can be enjoyed by children or not. I do see Kim in many bookstores under the children's section, and there's a Puffin edition of it. But the novel's political themes may be too overwhelming for young readers. I guess if the readers are guided to focus on the characters' adventures, then I guess it could very well work as a children's book.
Read this book if:
- You like your adventure stories set in exotic locations.
- You've always been curious about the actions of the British empire.
- You'll read anything by Nobel Prize-winning authors.