Several weeks ago, I attended a lecture in which Arundhati Roy spoke about her new novel alongside the legendary Alice Walker. At one point, Walker told Roy and the audience that, when she read The God of Small Things many years ago and when she read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness more recently, that she had to read each of them twice before she really got them.
That made me feel much better. I read The God of Small Things way back when, when everyone read it, when it was all the rage. I vaguely remember enjoying it but I also vaguely remember thinking that it was an extremely serious work of fiction that I was pretty sure I, at age eighteen, wasn’t quite getting.
So, twenty years later, along comes The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy’s second novel. Despite that I’m now a grown-ass man with a good twenty five years of reading serious literary fiction under my belt, Roy has once again made me feel like a woefully ill-equipped, silly simpleton of a reader.
While I’m smart enough to recognize that it was very, very good, I’m also smart enough to acknowledge that, without reading it one or two more times, I’ve got just about nothing smart or revelatory to say about it. But hey, even the great Alice Walker had to read it twice.
From a purely cosmetic perspective, I can say that the novel is littered with gorgeous sentences and passages. From a general literary perspective, I can say that the novel as a whole and the narratives contained therein come together to produce a pleasant and lovely experience for the reader. From a deeper literary perspective, I can’t say much of anything.
To be honest, I can’t even offer you much of a cursory plot summary. A lot of the novel centers around a wonderful character named Anjum, who is a hijra (Google it) and wants very badly to be a mother. A lot of it centers around another wonderful character named Tilo, who has an interesting love life that involves some subtle and well-rounded characters involved in the struggle for Kashmir. I know it may sound unconvincing for someone who has so little of substance to say about a book to also say that the book is excellent, but that’s what I’ve got for you.
Other than that, I’ll leave the criticism to the experts, like Alice Walker. And when I get around to reading it again, I’ll keep you posted.