Sadly, I must say that I was disappointed by this book and my disappointment was amplified because I thoroughly enjoyed Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, a fast paced novel that was both character driven and historically informative. I had read Shalimar the Clown three years ago and have been itching to get to know Rushdie better, so I figured where better to start than his acclaimed Midnight’s Children?
So, knowing that Rushdie is a writer to be respected, I had reserved a bit of excitement towards starting this novel, but my built up excitement caused me to be let down because Midnight’s Children wasn’t all what I had expected. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a horrible book – after all, I was motivated to complete all 532 pages of it – but it is extremely dense, slow moving, and overly saturated with too many Indi/Kashmiri/ Pakastani cultural and historical references to capture this reader’s interest.
Despite my negative reaction described above, I will say that I was pleased with part 1 of the novel. The first 130 pages started strong with some enjoyable historical context surrounding the betrothal of the main character Saleem Sinai’s Muslim grandparents in Kashmir and the Hindi/Muslim conflicts that surround his parent’s lives in Delhi and Bombay.
However, despite the strong start the novel faltered in Part 2. This is the period following the birth of the main character at midnight when India gains independence from Britain. Why does it falter? The entire novel is told from the first person perspective of Saleem Sinai, but Saleem doesn’t narrate in a straightforward chronological narrative. Saleem is narrating his life to Padma, his future love interest and his narration is flamboyantly tangential, egotistical, and sometimes unreliable as he admits that he has stretched the truth to fabricate a history of India that centers around his family with himself being the central figure and most important thing since the invention of pickled chutney.
Rushdie uses this narrative construct as the architectural premise of his novel in order to illustrate the unique qualities of Indian culture and Indian character, however the foundation of this construct becomes far too burdensome for the architectural masterpiece to be fully appreciated. Furthermore, Rushdie employs some unnecessary elements of magical realism regarding the strange powers of all of the children born on the fateful midnight of India’s birth. The powers range from Saleem’s clairvoyant telepathy and include other midnight children powers such the ability to transport oneself in mirrors, change sex, multiply fish, and etc. These elements would have been interesting if the powers of the midnight children were central to the plot, but despite the title of the book and Saleem’s constant reference to the MC, they don’t really do much to move the plot. When the MC all lose their powers at the end of the novel I couldn’t help but wonder, what the big deal was about.
I’m not sure if I’ll be returning to Rushdie any time soon. It would take a very strong recommendation for me to want to invest any more time in his writing. As an aside, I notice that my reaction to the egotistical narrative is very similar to the reaction I had towards Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex. Much like Midnights’ Children, Middlesex is a generational novel told from the first person perspective of the third generation. I really loved the grandparents story of life in Greece and immigration to Detroit and the parent’s story that showed the decline of Detroit; however as soon as the main character arrived as the central character I lost interest due to the egotistical narration that was complicated by a unique “power” of hermaphroditism. There is something about egotistical first person narration that turns me off, it lacks the universality that I appreciate in a powerful book.