Book Review: Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

The impossible task wasn’t to read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, it is rather to write this review of it and express the complex layers and emotions this novel is capable of producing in a reader. To be clear: I have nothing but praise for Rushdie’s accomplishment, and only regret that I had not read this sooner. Reading at the beginning of the book saw me attentive and doggedly folding the corners of pages I’d marked with notes and underlines, but after the first fifty pages or so that endeavor was abandoned in favor of awe-struck rhapsody. Rushdie’s writing is multi-faceted and light-hearted, dense yet easy-to-read, and filled with symbolism that ties into the dual-fates of the narrator, Saleem, and India as a developing independent country. My usual practice of leaving notes in the margins wasn’t cutting it here. My notes yearned to be pages and paragraphs; to complete them, I would have been marking up most of the page.

This novel is not a light read. It required me on innumerable occasions to research dates or events or ideas that I’d never encountered before or perhaps interacted with meaningfully. And yet with Rushdie’s work I was constantly researching and learning and found that at times my mind simply couldn’t wrap around any more information. When I reached points of maximum retention I put the dictionary and my computer away but continued reading. The surprising part was that even when I didn’t understand all of the word plays, puns, and history-steeped references, the story was still enjoyable. More than enjoyable: it was a put everything down, stay up far too late reading, compare-the-size-of-your-turds good read (an actual scene in the novel has Saleem comparing his meager seven inch turd “on a good day” to the fifteen inch one of a squatting defector outside his window).

While Rushdie’s humor flexes effortlessly from bathroom banter to satire, he also has some serious chops for, well, the serious stuff. He describes scenes of the India-Pakistan war through the eyes of a disconnected yet not dispassionate Saleem, who wanders the desolation viewing scenes of murder, rape, and pillaging. These parts of the novel are anything but humorous, and Rushdie crafts them with equal skill and art.

When I reached the end of the novel, my thoughts turned toward writing this review. What to say? How to say it? Which themes to discuss? Rushdie’s novel, because of its complexity and depth, is a difficult one to review in a few hundred words. With countless themes and plots, sub-plots and characters—all are linked together in a tightly-woven fabric—a review that conveyed specifics would seem unending. And yet a review that focused only on one theme wouldn’t do the book justice. Rushdie’s weaving is so masterful, in fact, that I never stopped to question his skill/taste/judgement when the narrator called himself out first for not being honest and then for what he considers omissions and mistakes (but cannot bring himself to correct because he is near his death).  

In an effort to be fair, I’ve written this short review and only scratched the surface in a hope to provide some glimmers of the novel’s meaning and appeal. Saleem’s narrative jumps both subject and timeline in back-and-forth acrobatics that can make even the most grounded and knowledgeable reader’s head spin, yet this decidedly unchronological and broken order of telling only adds to the magic of Rushdie’s novel. The result is a sprawling, magical-realism tale filled with details, character, and unique voice. This will forever be a classic; there is no doubt in my mind why this novel won Best of the Man Booker.

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