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review 2017-08-22 21:23
A kaleidoscopic novel about India, gender, politics, class, society, and humanity, demanding of its readers but rewarding in the same measure
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A novel - Arundhati Roy

Thanks to NetGalley and Hamish Hamilton (and imprint of Penguin Random House, UK) for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

This is not an easy novel to review. So far I’ve found that with all the novels longlisted for the Man Booker Prize that I’ve read so far. They all seem to defy easy categorisation.

I know the author’s first novel has many admirers and I always felt curious when I saw it (be it at the bookshop or the library) but as it was also a long novel I kept leaving it until I had more time. That was one of the reasons why I picked up this novel when I saw it on NetGalley. I thought it would be a good chance to read one of the author’s works (and I know she’s published more non-fiction than fiction), and I must admit I loved the title and the cover too.

As a starting point, I thought I’d share some of the fragments I highlighted as I read. Some because of the ideas expressed (that made me pause and think), some because of the author’s powers of description, some because they were funny, some beautiful…

I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everybody is invited. (This one I added at the end, when I reread the first chapter, that had intrigued me but at the time wasn’t sure exactly of who was narrating the story, or even if it was a who, a what, a ghost, a tree…)

And she learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.

Then came Partition. God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred.

Saddam had a quick smile and eyelashes that looked as though they had worked out in a gym.

He spoke like a marionette. Only his lower jaw moved. Nothing else did. His bushy white eyebrows looked as though they were attached to his spectacles and not his face.

…a mustache as broad as the wingspan of a baby albatross…

When the sun grew hot, they returned indoors where they continued to float through their lives like a pair of astronauts, defying gravity, limited only by the outer walls of their fuchsia spaceship with its pale pistachio door.

Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence.

She walked through miles of city waste, a bright landfill of compacted plastic bags with an army of ragged children picking through it. The sky was a dark swirl of ravens and kites competing with the children, pigs and packs of dogs for the spoils.

These days in Kashmir, you can be killed for surviving.

In Kashmir when we wake up and say ‘Good Morning’ what we really mean is ‘Good Mourning’.

I think the first quotation (and one I mention later on), in some way, sum up the method of the novel. Yes, it is the story of Anjum, a transgender (well, actually intersex) Muslim woman from India who, from a very young age, decides to live her life her own way. She joins a group of transgender women (who’ve come from different places, some who’ve undergone operations and some not, some Christian, some Hindus, some Muslim, some young and some old…) but at some point life there becomes impossible for her and she takes her things and ends up living in a cemetery. Although she starts by sleeping between the tombs, eventually, with a little help from her friends, ends up building up a semblance of a house (that incorporates a grave or two in each room), where she offers room and boarding to people who also feel they don’t belong anywhere else. Her business expands to include offering burials to people rejected by the official church. But the story (yes, I know it sounds weird enough with what I’ve said) is not only Anjum’s story, the story of her childhood, her struggles, her desire to be a mother at any price, but also the story of many others. People from different casts, religions, regions, with different political alliances, professions, interests, beliefs… The story, told in the third person, also incorporates poems, articles, entries from a peculiar dictionary, songs, slogans, pamphlets, in English, Urdu, Kashmiri… The telling of the story is fragmented and to add to the confusion of characters, whose connection to the story is not clear at first, some of them take on different identities and are called by different names (and many difficult to differentiate if one is not conversant with the names typical of the different regions of India and Pakistan). Although most of the entries in other languages are translated into English, not all of them are (I must clarify I read an ARC copy, so it is possible that there have been some minor changes in the definite version, although from the reviews I’ve read they do not seem to be major if any at all), and I clearly understand why some people would find the reading experience frustrating. All of the fragments of stories were interesting in their own right, although at times I felt as if the novel was a patchwork quilt whose design hid a secret message I was missing because I did not have the necessary key to interpret the patterns.

The settings are brought to life by a mixture of lyricism, precise description, and an eye and an ear for the rhythms and the ebbs and flows of the seasons, the towns, and the populations; the characters are believable in their uniqueness, and also representative of all humanity, observed in minute detail, and somewhat easy to relate to, even though many of them might have very little to do with us and our everyday lives. But their love of taking action and of telling stories is universal.

There is a lot of content that is highly political about the situation in Kashmir, religious confrontations in India, conflicts in different regions, violence, corruption, class and caste issues, gender issues, much of it that seem to  present the same arguments from different angles (all of the people who end up sharing Anjum’s peculiar abode are victims of the situation, be it due to their gender, their caste, their religion, their political opinions, and sometimes because of a combination of several of them) and I read quite a few reviews that suggested the novel  would benefit from tougher editing. I am sure the novel would be much easier to read if it was thinned down, although I suspect that’s not what the author had in mind when she wrote it.

This is a challenging and ambitious novel that creates a kaleidoscopic image of India, an India made up of marginal characters, but perhaps truer than the “edited” versions we see in mass media.  I have no expertise in the history or politics of the region so I cannot comment on how accurate it is, but the superficially chaotic feeling of the novel brings to mind the massive contrasts between rich and poor in the country and the pure mass of people that make up such a complex region. Although stylistically it is reminiscent of postmodern texts (made up of fragments of other things), rather than creating a surface devoid of meaning to challenge meaning’s own existence, if anything, this novel’s contents and its meaning exceed its bounds. The method of the novel is, perhaps, encapsulated in this sentence, towards the end of the book, supposedly a poem written by one of the characters: How to tell a shattered story? By slowing becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.

As I’ve written many times in my reviews, this is another book that I would not recommend to everybody. Yes, there are plenty of stories, some that even have an end, but it is not a book easy to classify, nor a genre book. There is romance, there are plenty of stories, there is poetry, there is politics, history, war, violence, prejudice, friendship, family relationships, but those are only aspects of the total. And, beautiful as the book is, it is not an easy read, with different languages, complex names, unfamiliar words, different styles and a fragmented structure. As I have not read Roy’s previous novel, I don’t dare to recommend it to readers who enjoyed her first novel, The God of Small Things. From the reviews I’ve read, some people who liked the first one have also enjoyed this one, but many readers have been very disappointed and have given up without reading the whole book. I’d say this is a book for people who like a challenge, who are interested in India from an insider’s perspective, don’t mind large doses of politics in their novels, and have the patience to read novels that are not page-turners full of twist and turns only intent on grabbing the readers’ attention at whatever cost. Check the book sample, read other reviews too and see if you’re up to the challenge. I know this is a novel that will stay with me for a very long time.

 

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review 2017-05-21 16:41
The God of Small Things
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

DNF @ 20%.

 

This book and I didn't get off to a great start, and I admit that some of this was due to my own preconceptions. But, I gave it a try.

 

It just didn't work.

 

When at 16% I still felt like

 

 

it just was not getting any better. The writing style was just aggravating me. I should have stopped there, but thought I'd read on for a bit to see if maybe the characters would make up the overuse of alliterations, but I just could not even get invested in the plot that was hinted at.

 

 

There are just so many more books out there that I would rather read.

 

Next!

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text 2017-05-20 22:56
Reading progress update: I've read 3%.
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

The overuse of alliterations is annoying me already. How long before it will drive me bonkers?

 

 

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text 2017-05-20 22:39
Reading progress update: I've read 1 out of 321 pages.
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

As much as I would like to crack on with my Opoly reads, I need to make a start on this month's RL book group read.

 

If only I found the premise of the book a bit more interesting. How is it that the books on the library group reading list are all a bit meh? From what I have seen, the titles are either hyped up popular fiction novels or debut works of unknown authors.

 

I've had this book for three weeks but have had no interest in starting this. I hope I am wrong but I can't shake the feeling that this will be another over-written, highly dramatic, humorless, family saga, which will derive a lot of "interest" based on its "exotic" setting and possibly some or other romantic entanglement or, alternatively, tale of hardship.

:(

I really hope I'm wrong.

 

Has anyone read this?

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review 2017-01-12 02:45
The God of Small Things
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

I wasn't sure what to expect other than everyone raves about this author and I had to sit with it all a while to decide what I really felt about it. It's a powerful book and a little hard to read sometimes but also strangely beautiful. Trigger: death of a child. It's right in the first chapter that the girl dies at 9 years old, so I don't really consider it a spoiler. I know this isn't as common a trigger as say rape, but it's one of mine. Not everyone can stomach dead children in their pleasure reading. This is my first Read Harder 2017 book, it was the debut novel for Arundhati Roy. The writing is so beautiful that I was sucked in before I even knew what was going on. It was the way she described the twins right in the first five minutes of the audio. I did listen to it, which I don't recommend. The story shifts in time and the audio doesn't give good markers when the shift is happening. The other problem is that my copy (which came from the library and will make it into the hands of others so that's why this is really a problem) skipped sometimes. It was annoying but didn't make me not want to continue, just like when the deaths were mentioned there in the first five minutes of the 6+ hours of audio. The reader, Sarita Choudhury, did a wonderful job. Since she is an established actress, though I didn't recognize her by name only face when I looked her up, one could hardly have expected less. The story itself is very uncomfortable to listen to but that doesn't lessen the experience. Sometimes we read difficult stories and it was especially trying as this was my audiobook while my print one was Burger’s Daughter, which is just as difficult for different reasons (it's about the antiapartheid movement in South Africa). The thing about it is that the story seems true to life. The moments come together in unexpected ways that mark the difference between punishment for one's actions and consequences for one's actions. Consequences can be so much harder because they can be so unexpected and so harsh sometimes. This is a book of consequences. As from the Goodreads blurb above from the book page, it's consequences for tampering with the love laws. I really loved the way the deliver included the "love laws". We see so much of this in lots of stories but it's not quite worded this way. There are consequences and sometimes they are things that characters can just deal with, and sometimes not tampering brings about the plot (looking at you, Wuthering Heights). The jumps in time aren't bad once I started to get a better feel for the rhythm, but I feel like I would have had some marker or something that would have suggested the shift and that would have made for an easier read. As it was, they made perfect sense within the story as it unraveled and we got to know the world everyone was living in. It may have just been backstory woven in as well, but the queues just weren't that obvious for me and I sometimes had to back up the story to figure out what I had missed. The characters were amazing, and not in that they're-all-good-people kind of way but more in the Gatsby way. No one is completely a good person (okay, I feel like one is but I won't tell you who). They are just people looking out for their interests individually and what the family does for them. Okay, the family part probably sounds harsh, but this is a complicated family that it doesn't seem like anyone wants to be a part of, so everyone is scrambling for some way to be themselves but can't do that on their own. You might think that they would work together because everyone gets further that way, but no. Because it's a true to life family and there is a lot of baggage here. Most of the baggage gets explained in the beginning though, which is part of how the back and forth in time or backstory confused me in the beginning. Everyone is at least a little broken and it all contributes to how they broke the love laws and why and how much. The pace is hard to describe because of the shifting time line and constant presence of backstory to different things. Don't get me wrong, all the backstory was 100% necessary and it moved in a fluid way. I think it's really the flow that messed me up sometimes because we would be with 30 year old Rahel and then young Rahel and wasn't sure where it happened. It moves along nicely, even though you know from the beginning where it's going. Except that it doesn't stop there and that was the point that I found especially horrifying and beautiful at the same time. I'm definitely going to continue reading Roy. Her style is just gorgeous. Seeing just the title of some of her other stories and how well this one read and having read some winners alongside her and recently, I wouldn't be surprised to find her on the Nobel Laureate list one day. As with the novels of those who have won, this was hard to read sometimes and harder to continue because of the pain it caused, but totally worth it.

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