I remember very clearly the issues that arose around the work of Salman Rushdie when he published The Satanic Verses but I had never read any of his novels. When I saw that Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 and thus could be read as part of my 60 Books from 60 Years Challenge which I have undertaken this year I decided to give it a go. It is fair to say that I was not aware when I chose it how thick the book is and how long it would take to read it or I may not have chosen it – a large number of the books I have selected for this challenge have been hefty. Nevertheless I am glad that I have read it because it is a remarkable book.
The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai directly to the reader with asides to his companion Padme. It is an autobiography of Saleem which is mostly told in chronological order, although with many digressions. Saleem starts with his grandfather and then moves on to his father’s story and thence to his own birth at exactly midnight on the day of India’s independence. The story links with the story of India and eventually the birth of Pakistan. It would probably help to have a little more knowledge of the events of this time than I do in order to understand the context fully.
The scope of the book is wide. It encompasses a family saga, a political history, a social history and a touch of magic realism. It touches on issues of identity, religion and change. There are a huge number of characters, many of whom recur. Although the story is mostly chronological the narrator teases the reader by referring to things which are coming and referring back to previous events which we can now see in a new light.
Saleem grows up in comparative comfort with a nose which can smell lies and the ability to connect in his mind with other children born at exactly the same time as he was. It turns out, in fact, that Saleem has been swapped at birth with another child born at the same time and this too affects his life. The author shares with us the lives of everyone that Saleem meets and their life histories. Saleem feels betrayed by his family and especially by his sister as the story progresses but he moves from India to Pakistan and back again and makes connections in those places too. The narrative is full of colour and inventive vocabulary and because there are so many characters it seems like it would be difficult to keep track of what is going on but I didn’t lose my sense of place at all, although I frequently thought that I was going to.
This is a great piece of writing and a book that has a lot to say about many things. It is full of description and details about ordinary life and the beliefs of Saleem and those he has contact with. It bombards the reader with ideas and words and then moves swiftly to another topic and different characters and does the same thing again. It’s a book that is huge in scope with some excellent writing. In the end, however, I found it all a bit too much; I wasn’t really up to the challenge and found the reading experience tiring – blame the reader rather than the writer !
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