Published in 1981, Midnight’s Children is a novel fusing two common law genres: historical fiction and magic realism. It tells the tale of Saleem Sinai, a boy born at midnight on the very minute India regained her independence from Britain. The premise of the story is that all children born during that first hour, from midnight to 1:00 a.m., were granted magical abilities to coincide with India’s release from colonialism.
Among the titular “midnight children”, there are boys and girls with different singular abilities, including a time traveler, a witch who can cure any ailment, a boy with knees that could snap a log in half, and hundreds of others. Our protagonist, Saleem, being the one closest to the hour of midnight, was granted the greatest ability: telepathic communication and networking.
However, this aspect of the plot is merely a side note. The main story focuses on the parallels between Saleem’s life and India’s, and as Saleem faces the trials of growing up from baby to boy to man to soldier to father, we see a mirror between his experiences and that of his mother country. What we get is the story of an individual and the collective, told in the style of a whimsical myth with many characters and events happening over the span of thirty years.
This review will look at the plot, the characters, and the narrative. There will be minimal spoilers.
The novel’s primary identity is that of a bildungsroman. We follow Saleem as he grows and learns what it means to be a human being, in every sense of the term. As a child he learns about sexuality and taboo, the importance of family, he falls in love, he falls out of love, he watches as his country descends into chaos and is carved up by borderlines, he struggles to remain a decent person as war rages around him, and we’re with him when he loses everything, and is reborn.
So there is no single objective or goal that he is working towards. In the story, Saleem tells us that he desires to make great changes for his nation, motivated by the attention he received for being the first baby born in an independent India. However, not only does this goal never fully materialize (Saleem is more bystander and participant than initiator), but the things that happen to him personally were often more interesting to read than the national issues. In my own personal reading, the plot failed to consistently hold my interest because it was trying to say too many things at once.
Despite that, I do believe this work has significant value. It tells the modern history of India, and although it was told through a fictional lens, the events actually happened, and we are given a perspective into why they happened and the sentiment of the common people, which is valuable because for the better part of history we only know what the upper class literate people thought.
The problem is that I wanted to know more about Saleem, and most of the time I felt like I was reading about separate events being connected loosely with one another, and so the plot felt disparate overall. This didn’t ruin the novel, but it definitely made it feel more like a slog through a swamp as opposed to a hike through a forest.
One of the things that kept me going were the characters. Midnight’s Children is chock full of interesting characters with unique personalities that all contribute to the plot. The only bad thing about this was that since this story is so big and ambitious, many characters leave the stage when we want to see more of them. Two of my favourites were Aadam and Amina, Saleem’s grandfather and mother, respectively.
Though the plot tried too hard to juggle many of its events, the characters were tremendously useful in tying things together, as the author expertly conveys everyone’s desires and wants, and weaves them naturally into the plot, providing a cohesive narrative that keeps us on track even when the reader can’t remember exactly why another revolt is happening in the country.
It all starts with Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather. He falls in love Naseem, and they give birth Amina. Amina, in turn, goes through a couple of adventures before marrying Ahmed Sinai, and it is then that Saleem is born. This is just the first third of the novel, before our main character arrives, and the author gives all of these characters just enough pages to get us to like them, and understand who they are. This continues when Saleem becomes the central point of view character, and we meet more and more characters as they cross Saleem’s path. By far, the characters were the strongest aspect of this novel.
Rushdie’s novel has been lauded for his distinct narrative style in the book, and it most definitely gave the story a unique flavour as one sits down and reads it. The author doesn’t do anything drastic or crazy like invent a new grammar system or omit punctuation. The unique voice comes from Saleem’s personality, and the fact that entire story is told in retrospect from first person. It allows the mature and wise Saleem to interact with us, the reader (although it’s done really through him talking to his soon-to-be-wife), and the treatment of the English language offers some insight into how Indians have interpreted their own culture and identity.
There were some parts, however, where the narrative simply couldn’t keep up with the plot. With all the tumultuous events in India’s history, it was impossible for the narrative to hold our hands as it jumped forward and backward in time, from India to Pakistan and back again. Often in the second half, I simply had to give up understanding exactly where we were and why, and just went with the flow.
Finally, littered throughout the story are some poignant phrases and paragraphs, sprinkled just enough here and there to demonstrate the author’s poetic and imaginative ability. On the whole, this story was pleasant to read, connecting me, someone who has never stepped foot in India before, to a brand-new world, making it simultaneously magical, real, beautiful, and broken.
This book ain’t for everyone. I enjoyed the subject matter, Saleem’s life more so than India’s history, but this took me a while to get through (hence the lack of book reviews). You have to be interested in personal and coming-of-age stories for a chance to endure this book to the end. Though the desire to find out what ultimately happens to Saleem was what kept me going, I couldn’t help but feel creatively stunted during my entire reading. When I read a book I really enjoy, it makes me want to write, like a creative kick in the ass. This book did not do that for me, so I’m on the fence.
Midnight’s Children is about a boy growing up alongside a country. It’s funny, it’s different, and it’ll give you a good sense of Indian culture and history. If that sounds interesting to you, go for it 😀
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.