Even though I share the name of the hero of this novel, I've chosen not to read it until now. There's more than one reason for this. The main reason is that I'm not naturally drawn to picaresque novels or to espionage novels, even though I've read my fair share of books from both genres. I've also had an instinctively negative reaction to Kipling because of my not terribly well-informed view of him as an apologist for British imperialism.
However, in the last few days I've started reading the seventh book in Laurie R King's Mary Russell series, The Game, which features an older Kim, some thirty years after the events of this novel. While King's homage to Kipling's work made me download the audiobook narrated by Sam Dastor, it was Kipling's skill as a writer and storyteller which kept me totally engaged with the narrative. Kim is the story of Kimball O'Hara, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier and a poor Irish woman, who lives by his wits on the streets of Lahore, becomes the disciple of a Tibetan Lama looking for the river which will bring him enlightenment, falls into the hands of the British military, acquires an education, is trained as a spy and plays a part in the Great Game - the battle for supremacy between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia.
Kim is a book which I could easily have disliked. The boy's own adventure elements, the lack of significant female characters, the refences to "Orientals" and "Asiatics" could all have irritated me and/or upset my politically correct sensibilities. It is true that I found the espionage plot rather less interesting than the rest of the plot. However, my lasting impression of the novel will not be those things. Rather, it will be the picture which Kipling paints of India under British rule in the late 19th century. Kipling deals with India in all of its bewildering diversity: the various religious communities, the cities and the rural areas, the plains and the mountains, the influence of the British on India and of India on the British. The other aspect of Kim which will remain with me is Kipling's treatment of the theme of identity. Kim has to find where he belongs in a land where social standing is determined by family, by caste and by religion. His questioning of his identity at various points in the novel is immensely moving. What I'll also take from Kim is the love for India and its people which Kipling clearly brought to the writing of the novel.
Sam Dastor's narration is amazing. He has a distinct voice for each character. Indeed, he subtly (and in relation to one character not so subtly) alters voices depending on whether the character is speaking English or Hindi or Urdu. I am persuaded that listening to the novel rather than reading it significantly increased by appreciation of the work. Listening to Kim has been a very enjoyable experience, up there in 4-1/2 star territory.