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Midnight’s Children – Book Review


midnightschildren1 I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more…On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clockhands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. – from Midnight’s Children, page 3 –

Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning novel Midnight’s Children is the story of a nation narrated by Saleem Sinai who embodies the history of India by being born at the exact moment of India’s independence (August 15, 1947). Other children, also born between midnight and one o’clock on this day, discover they are able to telepathically communicate with each other.

In fact, all over the new India, the dream we all shared, children were being born who were only partially the offspring of their parents – the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream. – from Midnight’s Children, page 132 -

The novel is allegorical, narrated in the first person, and spans more than sixty years from before Saleem is born until he is thirty years old. Saleem’s voice is arrogant, satirical and tangential.

Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately this makes the stories less juicy; so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal. Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted press on.from Midnight’s Children, page 62 -

Although difficult to follow at times, Rushdie’s sense of humor was one of the aspects of the novel I enjoyed.

Poor Padma. Things are getting her goat. Perhaps even her name: understandably enough, since her mother told her, when she was small, that she had been named after the lotus goddess, whose most common appellation amojngst village folk is “The One Who Possesses Dung.” - from Midnight’s Children, page 20 -

Despite these light moments, Midnight’s Children is not a light read. I really struggled to finish this book – and my feelings about it are mixed. Rushdie’s prose is full of symbolism, analogies, magical realism and the complex history of India. The book has multiple themes (the individual vs. the masses and destruction vs. creation to name two). It is also full of numerous characters – some minor, some major and everything in between. I often found myself scratching my head trying to understand it all.

Important to concentrate on good hard facts. But which facts? One week before my eighteenth birthday, on August 8th, did Pakistani troops in civilian clothing cross the cease-fire line in Kashmir and infiltrate the Indian sector, or did they not? In Delhi, Prime Minister Shastri announced “massive infiltration…to subvert the state”; but here is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, with his riposte: “We categorically deny any involvement in the rising against tyranny by the indigenous people of Kashmir.” - from Midnight’s Children, page 387 -

Rushdie is obviously brilliant. He knows how to tell a story. And yet I did not really enjoy reading this book and there are very few people to whom I could recommend it. If you are a person with some understanding of Indian culture and history and who loves symbolic stories filled with elements of magical realism, you might want to give Midnight’s Children a try. I am told it is one of his more accessible novels. If that is true, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more Rushdie in the near future.

3stars


24 Comments

  1. May 30, 2009    

    I have a little (well, maybe very little) understanding of Indian culture, have visited the country, have read and enjoyed several novels by Indian writers (A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is one of my all-time favourites), but this novel defeated me. I plodded on as far as p. 88 and then gave up. The bookmark is still there after all those years. At the time I felt I should give it another go one day, but I have now decided that Salman Rushdie is not for me. It’s the magical realism, probably. Never really works for me.

  2. May 30, 2009    

    You’ve essentially echoed my feelings about this book. There is so much there and Rushdie is a smart guy, but I didn’t really enjoy it and found it a slog. Hearing that it was more accessible than his others puts me off reading more of his works. I don’t think I could handle another.

  3. May 30, 2009    

    Anna: I have A Suitable Boy on my TBR stack (all I ever hear about it is good things!). I felt a bit defeated by Midnight’s Children too…I just felt sort of stupid through the whole thing…like I did not get it.

    Meghan: I’m with you – thinking about tackling another Rushdie would be like submitting myself to water torture at this point. Not pleasant!

  4. May 30, 2009    

    It’s too bad that you didn’t connect with this book. I’ve read it twice now and got quite different things out of it each time. My favorite Rushdie book is The Ground Beneath Her Feet which is a love story of sorts. I’ve read five or six of his books so far and they are all vastly different while having a similar rhythm which becomes easier to follow after you are familiar with it. I’m always sad when someone gives up on Rushdie because he’s an amazing storyteller.
    And I really liked A Suitable Boy but was disappointed with Seth’s other books so far.

  5. May 30, 2009    

    Well, at least you got through it!! I agree, I liked the brief moments of humor / satire the best. And while I think I liked this more than you did, I’m not inspired to read more of Rushdie’s work either.

  6. May 30, 2009    

    Kristen: I’m sad too because I wanted to like Rushdie – I agree he is a great storyteller, but his prose is not accessible to me, I find myself lost in all the words and symbols and double meanings. I keep wanting to enjoy Magical Realism, but I never do and am beginning to think I should stop trying to like something that just does not appeal to me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – you are not alone in your love of this author…so many people rave about him.

  7. May 30, 2009    

    Laura: I think this is the one time you rated a book higher than I did *laughs* You know, I have 100 Years of Solitude on my shelf and I know you really didn’t like that one – I’m thinking I should never read it! And no more Rushdie for me, I’m afraid.

  8. May 30, 2009    

    I firmly believe that I would not enjoy any of his books because I would just have to hard of a time following it…thanks for the honest and very neutral review!!

  9. May 30, 2009    

    It looks as though we had almost identical feelings on this! I think I’m going to avoid any book you don’t like in the future, as our taste in books is getting closer by the day!

    Don’t feel guilty about not enjoying it – it is just not for us.

  10. May 30, 2009    

    I have no idea how my comment on this book got onto the Sunday Salon post but just want to reiterate Haroun and the sea of stories is well worth the effort – and it’s not such a great effort at it is small and technically a children’s book. Before any of you give up on him do give it a go.

    I always approach magical realism with trepidation (I NEVER read fantasy but I suppose fantasy buffs will say magical realism is nothing like fantasy, and they are right really) but I usually end up enjoying it. I like Garcia Marquez, I liked ‘Like water for chocolate’, I liked ‘Midnight’s children’. I tend though not to remember the details of these books as well! There’s probably a reason for that.

  11. May 30, 2009    

    Staci: You’re welcome!

    Jackie: It seems that lately you and I are exactly on the same page when it comes to our assessment of books!

    Whisperinggums: I mentioned Midnight’s Children and how tough going it was for me on my Sunday Salon post last week – which is why I think you left your comment there (my review of it only just posted today). Thanks for your recommendation of other work by Rushdie which we might enjoy. Trepidation is a good way to describe my approach to magical realism as well!

  12. May 30, 2009    

    Ah, that sorta makes sense cos I had a feeling I’d commented before on your part-way post but I thought I’d commented here on the full review as that’s what I was responding too this time. Some gremlin clearly crept in!

  13. May 30, 2009    

    This is one of my favorite Rushdie books, but if I did not know India’s history I would have put it down, so I applaud you for finishing it! Don’t let this one put you off. Who ever told you this was one of his more accessible books is way off the mark. Hauron and the Sea is a great start. It can even be read to children. My favorite so far is The Satanic Verses, but I warn you, it is long and involved. East and West is a great collection of short stories. This would also make a good start for anyone looking to get a feeling for Rushdie.

  14. May 31, 2009    

    I agree with Sari – this is NOT one of his most accessible books (to me). I have heard loads of criticism of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but that one is my favorite. It’s a retelling of the Orpheus legend, and has become one of my favorite books ever. The Satanic Verses is also very good, and although I didn’t get to finish The Enchantress of Florence, I was enjoying it a lot.

  15. May 31, 2009    

    I’m with Kristen, Sari and Jenny!

    Rushdie is my favourite, and his books are so special in that they can be re-read many times over as they offer you something new every time you read them. It’s been a long time since I read Midnight’s Children that I’ve forgotten its details and I guess it’s time to read it again :)

    Yeah, I too always thought The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children are the least accessible of his books. The former needs a strong understanding of the fundamentals of Islmic History and the latter, Indian History and culture. Whoever told Midnight’s Children is accessible must be an Indian:) Since I am an Indian and was born into a muslim family, I feel I am at a position of great advantage! :P

    Anyway, Caribousmom, great that you finished the book! Do try his other novels..

  16. May 31, 2009    

    Sari: Thanks for the recommendations – good to know you don’t think of Midnight’s Children as accessible (that was enough to put me off reading him forever!!)

    Jenny: I’m making notes of all these books that Rushdie fans are saying I should try – we’ll see. Right now I am looking to read some lighter fare *laughs*

    Deepdowne: Well, you are certainly not alone in your love of Rushdie’s work. I wonder if your Indian background makes his work easier? I just found myself so confused through the whole thing! I promise, I’ll consider another of his books…but in the future, not now!!!

  17. June 1, 2009    

    Yeah, I believe an Indian background helps a lot in handling his works

  18. June 2, 2009    

    You did better than I did Wendy. You actually finished it. LOL! I heard that his most recent one is much more accessible.

  19. June 3, 2009    

    Teddy: I’m taking a break from tough books like this over the summer, I think…I need some relaxing reads!

  20. June 12, 2009    

    I actually LOVE Rushdie; I’ve absolutely adored everything he’s written…except this novel. I know it won the Booker & everything, but I couldn’t handle it. I love his writing style, I love Indian literature, but this book didn’t do it for me. On the other hand, The Moor’s Last Sigh is one of my favorite books of all time. I suppose it just reflects how different peoples’ taste can be.

  21. June 13, 2009    

    Emily: You are not alone in your love of Rushdie…lots of people seem to feel as you do. It is heartening to me to see you didn’t like Midnight’s Children, yet loved some of his other work. I might give him another try at some point.

  22. cristina ana's Gravatar cristina ana
    July 16, 2009    

    What a intelectual reward! It takes you places and keeps surprising you, filling your soul with an undescriptible mix of emotions. The air is sometimes so thik, the sadness so real and unberable, but it make you impossible to lay it down and declare defeat.

  23. July 18, 2009    

    Cristina Ana: You have voiced what many readers say about Rushdie’s work. Glad you loved the book!

  24. May 2, 2011    

    I would not call this one of his more accessible books at all. I have read and enjoyed other Rushdie books – Shame, Shalimar the Clown, Haroun & sea of stories, but this MC is really difficult to get through. So far, I have completed Part I and am still plodding along trying to get into the story :(

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