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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Midnight's Children

Here's my review of Midnight’s Children, next will be Robots and Empire, Up from Slavery, and Lonesome Dove.

Midnight's Children, published in 1981, looks at India's transition from British colonialism to independence through the lens of historical fiction.  It also has heavy elements of magical realism.  The book focuses on the events leading up to and comprising the life of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the very moment that India became an independent state.  Saleem finds himself a member of a group of children possessing powers.  These were the children born in the first hour of India's independence; the closer to the stroke of midnight, the greater the gift.  The book has received a fair amount of acclaim.  Personally, I could take it or leave it.  I say that understanding that my ignorance of Indian culture and history probably made it so that a good amount of of the book's content went right over my head.

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It's another one of those books that I felt was trying too hard to be artsy and different.  It has a very meta narrative, constantly interrupted by references to the writing itself.  In my view, this detracted rather than added to the story, particularly in the beginning.  I found the plot somewhat interesting, but never really cared about the protagonist.  He has to be one of the, if not the, most narcissistic characters I have ever encountered.  He ascribes the rise and fall of governments and military strikes to his own actions or a desire to target him in a way that exceeds even the wildest imaginings of conspiracy theorists.  It worked as a device to drive the story, but made him unrelatable to me.

The titular children only make occasional appearances before being shoehorned in at the end in an attempt to justify the title.  Some of their powers are just bizarre to me.  Saleem and a girl born shortly after midnight have powers I might expect: telepathy and a form a generalized magic.  The other person born right at midnight, however, who supposedly has one of the two greatest abilities, has incredibly powerful knees.  You read that right.  Knees.  They are described in a variety of ways: knobby, prehensile, imposing, and so on.  Yet it was never clear to me exactly how one benefits from even the most phenomenal pair of knees.  It bothered me every time it came up.

The book can be fairly disgusting and crass at points.  While it was probably needed in some measure to achieve a realistic and gritty feel to the novel, it ultimately came to just the wrong side of the gratuitous line for me.  There definitely seemed to be moments included just for shock value.  Bodily functions are a consistent theme throughout the novel.  Like most themes, you'll feel like Rushdie beat you about the head with it rather than subtly weaving the elements throughout the novel.

All that being said, I didn't mind reading it.  I would have liked it better if it was shorter, but I wouldn't call it a bad book.  It's just definitely not going on my list of favorites.

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