Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie

The basic premise of Rushdie's Midnight's Children sounds almost like it could be a YA fantasy/dystopian novel (admittedly, a surprisingly worldly and non-European YA given the current state of the genre): on midnight the day of India's independence from Britain, several hundred babies, "midnight's children," are born. Each of these children is endowed with a special gift or power, none more so than the two male babies born right at midnight: Saleem and Shiva. Unbeknownst to either boy or either boy's family, the two babies are switched shortly after birth by a kind-hearted but wrong-headed nurse. Narrated by Saleem, Midnight's Children follows the boy as he grows up and discovers his powers of telepathy and his ability to communicate with and bring together, in his mind, all of midnight's children. As Saleem's life mirrors the development of India as a country, his life also irrevocably heads toward confrontation with Shiva, his rival.

Although I knew going in that this wasn't going to be an action-oriented kid-with-powers adventure, I guess part of me hoped that Midnight's Children would, I don't know, be an interesting mash-up of fantasy and history, YA and political understanding. After all, Rushie's Luka and the Fire of Life, which I enjoyed,  had that kind of tone. Instead, Midnight's Children is magical realism, history, and stream of consciousness in the most annoying way possible.

I've never enjoyed the South American magical realists, and if I thought that Indian magical realism would somehow be different, I was wrong. Midnight's Children takes place firmly in the real world; there are weird coincidences and odd characters, but almost no fantasy. Though Saleem can, at various points in his life, enter others' minds or smell emotions, neither skill figures much into the book. Instead, most of the novel is a very slow exploration of his childhood. This might have been tolerable if the novel wasn't narrated by Saleem's adult self. Saleem the narrator constantly stops the book to interrupt, to backtrack, to spend pages and pages on Indian history that he sees as influenced by his life and then to foreshadow ominously the book's ending. Though part of the book's conceit is that Saleem sees his life and India's life as intertwined, it's very difficult for someone with little knowledge of Indian history to follow (that's certainly a problem with me as a reader, not Rushdie as a writer, but it was nonetheless an issue for me). The constant foreshadowing of doom was tiresome; either leave it be, or get on with it!

For fans of magical realism (if you, ahem, somehow enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude), pointless constant foreshadowing by an excessively involved narrator (e.g., Book Thief), and books of enormous length and casts of characters, Midnight's Children is probably a great choice.

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