Before I get too deeply into this review, I need to make a few caveats. First, I read this book refusing to use any sort of “helper” materials. I read no Spark Notes or Cliff Notes or other reviewers or any other literary criticism tool; my review is based solely on what I got out of the book using my own little noggin. Secondly, I am not Muslim nor am I an Indian or Pakistani. I used a dictionary for words I was not familiar with (like all good readers should!), but other than that, I relied on whatever knowledge I came to the book possessing. Keep these points in mind as you read.
Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 by Salman Rushdie. It was released to some acclaim and is considered one of the best books of the twentieth century. It parallels the life of the main character, Saleem Sinai, with the subcontinent’s early struggles with independence. As India struggles, Saleem struggles. As India is overcome with optimism, Saleem and his family become optimistic. Even the house in which Saleem lives is handed over to his family by a wealthy British aristocrat at the exact moment Great Britain hands India its independence. The Saleem = India = Saleem theme is apparent from the beginning and is handled well enough.
The book is an example of “magical realism” which is basically very well written and timely fantasy. There are many fantastic events in this book which add flavor and give Rushdie more freedom in constructing his allegory. I liked it, but only because I am a nerd. If children having magical powers against the backdrop of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 gives you pause, you need to keep the genre in mind before you decide to dive in.
Because the book is classified as magical realism, the presumption is that Rushdie must be an excellent writer. Well yes, I can confirm that Rushdie is an excellent writer. The book is fun to read. He plays with words, his choices are interesting, and the novel is descriptive and clever. However, I have a major issue with the plot, and by that I should say there is no plot. As mentioned, the novel is an allegory, much like Pilgrim’s Progress, another book with not so much a plot but rather a string of loosely related events that are meant to inform, instruct, or lecture. It seems that Rushdie’s main goal in this novel is to educate and criticize rather than entertain. This is fine, but I found myself jolted by the abrupt emergence of parallels. One page I am reading about some event in Saleem’s life, sometimes innocuous, and the next I am jolted into some crisis on the subcontinent that loosely parallels the Saleem scene I just read. At times I felt Rushdie would have been better served writing a work of historical fiction. It would have been more concise and focused.
Have I mentioned this book is about 150 pages too long? No? Well this book is about 150 pages too long. Everything Rushdie writes ties in later on in the book, so no single event is wasted, but every character seems to have the spotlight for just a few pages too long; every scene gets just a few too many paragraphs. Over the course of 647 pages, this adds up. Perhaps my only passing knowledge of Arabian Nights and Islam causes me to rebel against meaningful paragraphs whose symbolism eludes me, but I could not shake the feeling that Rushdie was laying it on a bit thick in places.
Overall, this book is worth reading but be warned it is an investment. If you want to watch a talented writer do his thing or have an interest in the complex and turbulent history of the subcontinent without getting bogged down in a history book, you might want to give Midnight’s Children a read. I think the book was more fun to read than Secret Agent, but I found Conrad’s book more engrossing and so I have to score this book slightly lower.
5/10 Sniffing Saleems