Book Review: A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley

A Long Way Home
Saroo Brierley

Many Americans certainly know about and experience poverty and hardship here at home, but the desperate, frightening nature of the poverty in third-world populations can be more of an abstract concept, until one encounters a book like A Long Way Home. It’s the story of five-year-old Saroo, who lives in abject poverty with his family in central India. He and his siblings (brothers Guddu and Kallu and sister Shekila) face a hunger every day that leaves their bellies hollow and protruding, and they forage for food where and when they can. There aren’t social services in little villages in India (or even in the big cities), so they are on their own. Their mother Kamla loves them deeply, but their father is absent, save for the very occasional bone he throws them to buy shoes or some other necessity.
The story’s flashback starts with an adult Saroo recounting what happened when he was five years old and already the primary caregiver of his younger sister, Shekila. The two were often left alone for long stretches because their mother had no choice but to leave them while she went to work. Saroo’s two older brothers were at an age at which they wanted to get out and be mischievous and find food and freedom, so that left a five-year-old as the primary caregiver. One night, Saroo convinces Guddu (against Guddu’s better judgement) to allow him to tag along to the train station to hustle for money and food. What happens that night begins Saroo’s long journey away from his family to a new family in Australia, and, finally, to a miraculous reunion years later. The portrayal of this young boy—with his distinct voice, vivid memories, longings, love, and resilience—is a powerful force in the book; even as the adult Saroo looks back, the boy Saroo is present.
The wonder of the story is that Saroo survives being separated from his family at age five (after falling asleep on the train that will take him the 1800 miles away, to Calcutta) and thrives in life, if not for the underlying heartbreak that stays with him. He is illiterate and can’t communicate at the orphanage he is put into after weeks of being on the dangerous streets of the city, so no one knows his full name or where he is from. Eventually, a couple from Australia adopts him. The vivid details of his childhood, both in India and in Australia, are captivating and full of child-like wonder.
Here is an excerpt from the portion of the book that outlines his adoption and acclimating to life in Australia with the Brierleys:
My transition to life in another country and culture wasn’t as difficult as one might expect, most likely because, compared to what I’d gone through in India, it was obvious that I was better off in Australia. Of course, more than anything I wanted to find my mother again, but once I’d realized that was impossible, I knew I had to take whatever opportunity came my way to survive. Mum and Dad were very affectionate, right from the start, always giving me lots of cuddles and making me feel safe, secure, loved, and above all, wanted. That meant a lot to a child who’d been lost and had experienced what it was like for no one to care about him. I bonded with them readily, and very soon trusted them completely. Even at the age of six (I would always accept 1981 as the year of my birth), I understood that I had been awarded a rare second chance. I quickly became Saroo Brierley.
Sue and John Brierley, the young couple from Tasmania, Australia, provide a good life for Saroo for the next 20-plus years. But as a young adult, with the invention of things such as Google Earth and Facebook, Saroo is able to connect with his lost family 25 years later—those who still remain, that is. The book also outlines and parallels the two amazing women who love him: his birth mother, who worked so hard (and must’ve suffered so much not knowing what happened to him), and Sue, who herself was a WWII refugee from Hungary. All in all, the book is a fascinatingly detailed account of this young boy’s life journey. The movie Lion, which was based on the book, is a good adaptation, but the voice of the little boy Saroo really shines through in the pages of this one-of-a-kind true story.
–Laurie Fundukian