Writing this blog post feels particularly satisfying because I have been struggling with this book for months. It has put me significantly behind my Goodreads reading challenge, it has plagued me with guilty stares every time I’ve got on the train and picked up the Evening Standard instead of opening it up, and it has bothered me that I have found it so difficult when it has such a great reputation and when many parts of it were, in fact, quite enjoyable. However, c.6 months after starting the dratted thing, I am finally finished! Given that it’s been such a monumental struggle, I hope I can offer something of worth in this review that can help you decide whether it’s worth bothering with or not.
So, to start, the accreditation. Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 and won both the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in that same year. It was also later awarded the “Booker of Bookers” Prize in both 1993 and 2008 and (obviously) given its presence on The List, has consequently made it onto the majority of ‘Great Books of our Time’ reading lists with reviews praising its author for being a “master of perpetual storytelling” (The New Yorker). With this impressive reputation, I was surprised to find out relatively quickly that I didn’t really like it.
It’s quite hard to give a plot summary of Midnight’s Children but, in short, it’s a story about the life of one boy, Saleem Sinai, who is born on the stroke of midnight when India becomes independent from Britain. He, along with another 1,000 children born in this first glorious hour of independence, is bestowed with an extraordinary gift, and his fate (and that of his family) becomes inextricably linked with that of India herself, as she navigates her existence outside of British rule. It is then layered with many more complexities, a whole host of characters from the intriguing to the banal and is heavy with threads of symbolism and recurring motifs.
The main challenge I found with Midnight’s Children was in the writing style that Rushdie chose to adopt. Whilst his creative and extensive descriptions were beautiful and rich, conjuring vivid pictures of Indian scenery and painting truly three dimensional characters through his words, they also result in an incredibly dense and slow moving narrative. As an impatient person captivated more by plot developments than colourful details, I found my attention slipping frequently and my interest waning. Couple this density of description with frequent digressions from the main thrust of the plot, and I was reaching breaking point; the majority of my concentration was absorbed in ploughing through the pages, rather than appreciating the story I was reading. Our narrator, Saleem Sinai himself, has a tendency to divert from the path of his tale into what is often an unnecessary aside, or deliver a lengthy monologue to contextualise an inconsequential detail. He also tends to skip forward and backwards in the chronology of events, foreshadowing what is to come, then stopping himself to return to more mundane details. Usually, this technique gets a reader excited for what is to come, and motivates you to keep going but in this novel it just became irritating. Thankfully, those of us who were increasingly frustrated with this fragmented narrative had one small sliver of relief in the form of Saleem’s audience, Padma, who occasionally calls him out on these deviations.
In addition to his infuriating method of story telling, I also found myself less than enamoured with Saleem throughout the book. At times he is charming, at others entertaining, but he struck me throughout as being weak and often self-pitying. I like that he isn’t perfect; perfection is boring, but the self-importance that seemed to emanate from him in telling his tale of woe meant that he failed to elicit much sympathy from me. As part of a continuous theme throughout the book regarding the truth of memory, Saleem continuously questions his own narrative and memory of events, which in turn creates a sense of futility in the whole story and, for me, undermined my effort in bothering to read it. As a result of these frustrations, the whole mountain of the novel became even steeper to climb and I started not to care what happened to him, which further demotivated me from reading on.
The originality of this novel cannot be denied – by reimagining the political upheaval of India from the 1940s through to the 1970s as being the direct cause of the birth of one particular boy with a special gift, Rushdie brings a unique lens to the events of the period and one of the most intense examples of the magical realism genre in literature. However, I have to confess, that this particular instance of magical realism didn’t really work for me as a reader. This really is all down to personal taste, and I’ll be the first to admit that. For me, I found the juxtaposition of actual historical fact (all the detail of the politics of the region during the period) alongside the completely fantastical (Saleem’s telepathic abilities and the extraordinary gifts of the Midnight’s Children Conference) too difficult to reconcile. It felt too much like two opposite genres colliding instead of combining, but I suspect that this may have been entirely Rushdie’s intention. My interpretation is that in this style, we see a mix of traditional Indian folklore, myth and story-telling blended with Western fiction, in order to reflect the melting pot of post-colonial India. I could even take the allegory further to suggest that perhaps we are meant to feel uncomfortable with this style, to mirror some of the conflict between these two cultures and the readjustment of India after the British departure. I can appreciate this as a feat of creative license, and admire what it brings to the interpretation of the novel, but I just didn’t find it particularly enjoyable to read.
Reflecting on the novel when I had completed it, and discovering that the formation of Pakistan, the resulting conflict in India and the imposition of the Emergency rule is explained in this book as a direct result of the need to stamp out Saleem and his Midnight’s Children colleagues who pose a threat to the regime, made me appreciate it more. However, I feel that my lack of knowledge of the politics of this period and of Indian culture and history generally probably prohibited me from fully acknowledging the extent of the author’s skill.
I read a review where someone said that they felt that Salman Rushdie had tried to make it as difficult as he could for you to complete this novel, as if he was daring you to make it to the end, knowing that so many would fall before reaching the finish line. I can’t help but agree, given my own experience. There is so much beautiful writing in this book; I really felt like I could vividly see the world Rushdie was creating for me and the people who inhabited it, from the snake man in the attic of William Methwold’s Estate to Nadir Khan with his long, lanky hair. But there’s just too much writing; too much self-reflection from Saleem, and too much detail given to things of little significance. The book has won much praise for giving a different perspective on India but without knowing the context of what Rushdie achieved here, it’s not something that has resonated with me. I have also probably not managed to grasp the myriad examples of clever symbolism, recurring themes and motifs that make this novel much more interesting as a piece of work to critique and, no doubt, earn its status as a literary masterpiece.
For many, the uniqueness of the narrative, and the skill of the author is enough to render this book a resounding success, but not for me. As a person picking up a book for enjoyment, the best thing about it was the smug smile and sense of satisfaction I got when, after 6 months, I finally saw the words 100% in the bottom left of my kindle screen.
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥