Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

So finally I have conquered the Booker of Booker’s Salman Rushdie’s epic novel Midnights Children. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin I have been finding it difficult to review such an epic and complex novel (seriously this about the fourth time I have sat down and tried to review it so I hope that I get it right this time). I did wonder if reading the Booker of Booker’s was a wise decision when I had only read about five other Booker winners. Would it be too much of a mission?

Midnights Children, let there be no doubt, is a huge novel and not only as it is a grand 675 pages long. Though what is essentially the tale of a mans life in India growing up born on the hour of its independence and all that follows it’s a book that looks at our families life before us, our environments, genealogy, culture and how all of these things make us who we are. It also takes us into the surreal, as the narrator himself is certainly not the most reliable of narrators you will ever come across in fact he sometimes worries himself with the order of events in his mind when he knows they can come out wrong as he crafts his tale and his history.

Our narrator is Saleem Sinai also known as Snotnose, Baldy, Buddha and Piece-of-the- Moon. He is born on the exact stroke of midnight on August 15th 1947 also the exact moment that India became independent after British Colonisation. This makes him special as only he and one other boy of the 1001 born in the first hour of independence actually arrived dead on the midnight hour. However before you find out just why Saleem is so special Rushdie takes you through his heritage and his family background and looks at the question ‘are you born with all your ancestors baggage attached to you before you have even drawn your first breathe?’ I found this idea absolutely fascinating. Not only does he look at that huge question, through Saleem’s family history and indeed through the years that Saleem tells us of his growing up Rushdie shows you how the landscape, religious and political tensions and society changed in India.

Before I get to the ‘surrealism’ I should also mention that one of the other things that makes Saleem so special is the fact that he can get into peoples mind’s read their thoughts and even see through their eyes. In fact as it turns out all of the ‘midnight children’ have some sort of powers that make them unique and also very different from any other children born the day before or the hours after. Which opens up even more interesting tales and made me think that Rushdie might just have had his idea’s “borrowed” for a certain ‘heroic’ TV series, maybe?

Now one thing that scared me off the book before I read it, bar the length - as long books and myself have a funny relationship, was the dreaded ‘surrealism’ word. Now I don’t personally hold anything against books that use surrealism the whole point of fiction to me is to escape. What I don’t like is when it is done to be ‘out there’ or get noticed. I didn’t think that this sudden twist in the tale, there are quite a few unexpected twists in this novel making you wonder just how much genius there must be in Rushdie’s head, did anything other than make the book even more enthralling and fantastic. I admit it I was completely hooked.

It’s not just the extreme storylines that are surreal though its some of the paragraphs of prose which to me read almost like fairy tales throughout the book and who out there didn’t love fairy tales as a child? For example the love story of Saleem’s Grandparents who met when he was a doctor and she his patient only he could only see her via a small hole in a sheet used to cover her modesty when she needed to be examined. They fall in love without ever seeing each other, beautiful. It’s almost a shame she becomes such a sour faced old lady in the end… only it isn’t because what wonderful characters those are.

That is another thing that teems throughout this book. The characters, not only is Saleem himself a great character so are his family, especially his sister ‘Brass Monkey’ in his childhood along with his tempestuous Grandmother. His alcoholic father and adulterous (though not in the way you would think) mother are wonderfully written, in fact his mothers story like his Grandparents love story could have made two more books just by themselves. There is his wonderful wife Padma ‘Godess of Dung’ and possibly my favourite all the cat shooting, bicycle stunt loving American new girl on the block Evelyn Burns who in Saleem’s pre-teen years becomes a femme fatale and young tyrant all in one. Every character is fully formed in this book even if they only show up for just one page.

Overall I think this is a complete masterpiece. Some people will of course hate it, some will find it hard work and some will be taken away by the beautiful prose, the fairy like quality of a true epic tale. (I have to add here this last few years I have read some wonderful fiction based in India or from Indian writers that I am simply going to have to go there – I have quite fallen in love with it.) The latest Rushdie novel The Enchantress of Florence has just jumped about twenty places up my TBR pile, I only hope its as good as it does seem I have started with his best work! Let me know if his others are as good and what your experiences with Rushdie have been like!?!

10 comments:

Dot said...

I have always been a little frightened by Rushdie's books to be honest but I have really enjoyed your review. Maybe I should give him a go!

Sandy Nawrot said...

He IS frightning! The length is frightning! But it truly sounds like it is worthy of the struggle. It is not one that I am rushing out to read next, but will give it serious consideration for the undetermined future! Great review.

claire said...

I'm so glad you loved this, Simon! My relationship with Rushdie is super good. I'm always in awe of how well he writes when I read him.

I really loved A Moor's Last Sigh, probably because it was the first book by him that I've read. But looking back now, I only remember that it was a very confusing but really wonderful read. I think I was too young then, not enough of a mature reader.

Fury is written brilliantly as usual, but I don't recommend it at all because I was very annoyed with him the whole time I was reading it. He came off as over-indulgent and really seemed like he was only showing off how good he writes.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is very different and not everyone will like it. It felt like a Dr Seuss book for adults. Lol.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet was okay, but not nearly as wonderful as Midnight's Children.

My favourite of all his books that I've read, though, and it was even better than Midnight's Children for me, was EAST, WEST.

East, West is his only collection of short stories, I think. And in it he is very subtle, not as wordy nor elaborate as in his novels. I think it's a little masterpiece and highly recommend it.

farmlanebooks said...

I thought you'd love this one.

I did enjoy reading sections, but some bits were too weird for me. I'm sure I'll read more Rushdie one day, but I might leave it a year or two!

Candy Schultz said...

Those surreal bits are what place Rushdie's work in the Magical Realism genre. As far as I can tell (I haven't read everything yet) all his fiction is like that. The Enchantress was wonderful but my favorite remains The Satanic Verses.

If you liked Midnight's Children you will most likely love his other novels.

Juxtabook said...

As Candy says the surreal is 'magic realism' - you just have to go with it and think, 'it's magic!'. I agree with you that it is a complete masterpiece: plot, prose, characterisation, are all mesmerising, and then there is just the sheer charm of the book. I agree with Claire about A Moor's Last Sigh - another lovely book.

Great review by the way, as it is one those books that make you think, "Where do I start to explain??". I had the same trouble with Yann Martel's Self.

Kim said...

Great review, Simon. My son has always been a huge fan of Rushdie and has constantly encouraged me to read some of his books, but, I've always been put off by the length and complexity of his work. Having read your review, Rushdie is on my list. Thank you.

C. B. James said...

I think you've done a good job with a very meaty book. Midnight's Children is one of my all time favorites, I think it's one of the best novels in English. My favorite part of the novel is the couple who fall in love through a hole in a sheet. That's brilliant. Funny and romantic and sexy, too.

Savidge Reads said...

Dot & Sandy - Seriously I would recommend Rushdie to anyone and everyone now and I was quite intimidated by his stuff before I actually read it!

Claire - Lots and lots and lots of people have said that I should try A Moors Last Sigh so I am going to have to track it down!

Jackie - How did you know? Ha!

Candy - Magical Realism? I hadnever heard of that expression until this blog and now everyone is saying it. I liked it so need to find more.

Juxtabook - I must try Self, I have not tried anything else of his since the Life of Pi which i loved to bits!

Kim - Do try him honestly I dont think you will regret it!

CB - That was possibly one of my favourite stories within the story too and for all the same reasons.

Mirza Ghalib said...

I read the book and as I titled it, it's an excellent lesson in perpetual story-telling. How this man interconnects seemingly insurmountable dots through the prism of a protagonist, who is a shrewd tactician of life at best and a benign, laid-back, if somewhat confused character at worst, is a lesson in writing a story. Salman Rushdie has perfectly captured the essence of pre-independent and independent India through the refraction of the protagonist Salim Sinai. Must say, not a book for the beginners or the fickle-minded, and you need a zeal for something new in order to continue flipping through it's pages, because at the beginning, you'll not probably be interested too much in the story, for I atleast found the first three chapters rather bland, but as I went through to the next chapters, I became slowly engrossed into it, and found out those so-called "bland" chapters also have their importance in the larger scheme of things. All in all a first class book.