Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie Sunday, Aug 12 2012 

Saleem Sinai is born at a very exciting time—the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, to be exact, the very moment that India becomes an independent nation after decades of British rule. As he grows up, Saleem finds out that being born at such an important and historic moment has its consequences. From birth to adulthood, his hopes, dreams, personal tragedies, and even physical health are linked to and reflected in national events, to the point that Saleem even feels personally responsible for much of India’s postcolonial history. As if that were not enough, he also learns that he has telepathic powers that connect him with the other “midnight’s children,” all born within that first hour of Indian independence and possessing magical gifts of their own. Among those children is an enemy who will haunt Saleem for years to come.

Midnight’s Children was one of the more challenging ones I’ve read in a while; I was struck while reading it by just how little I knew about India. That limited knowledge, I am guessing, is why it took me some time to understand many of the symbols and themes present in the book. However, the challenge was well worth it. This is a fascinating and imaginative work, and not quite like anything else I have ever read.

The magical realism that Salman Rushdie is known for is perfect for a novel about 20th century India. As Saleem Sinai tells not only his own story, but also the stories of his parents and grandparents, the reader is presented with a picture of a nation that faces an ever-present conflict between its own ancient traditions and the British forces of modernization. Rushdie also perfectly presents two very common views of India (at least among Westerners): India as a magical land filled with mysteries and mysticism, and India as a real country facing real social, political, and military problems. The India in Midnight’s Children isn’t one or the other; it’s fully, definitely both.

What I consider to be best reflected in the magical realist elements and the saga of Saleem and his family is the fact that India is incredibly diverse and complex. For outsiders who don’t know much about it, it can be easy to forget that India is anything but a monolithic society. The country is one of the most populous in the world, and its citizens speak many different languages and practice numerous religions. That diversity and the challenges it presents shine through brilliantly in Midnight’s Children, and it is not very hard to see why Saleem often feels so overwhelmed by the moment of his birth and his inescapable connection to his homeland’s history.

While the history of postcolonial India is a huge part of the novel, it was hardly the only thing that stood out to me. I always enjoy novels that are fictional or fictionalized characters’ autobiographies, and what makes this one especially distinctive is that Saleem willingly acknowledges that he is not a reliable narrator. He is aware that he doesn’t always remember historical events and dates accurately, and he even admits that not every aspect of his story is completely true. As a result, Midnight’s Children becomes an interesting reflection on memory and whether how we remember things is more real to us than what actually happened. As with any fictional memoir I read, of course, I also find myself questioning how much we can believe the stories real people tell about their lives—not so much, in this case, because I think they’re being intentionally dishonest, but because they may be telling what they want to or can remember rather than what really happened.

Along with its strong thematic content, Midnight’s Children is an incredibly vibrant, gorgeously written novel filled with compelling characters and a few twists in the story that I did not expect. It is not one of the easier novels I’ve read in my life, but any effort I had to put into reading it was more than worth it, and I think it would be for anyone who chooses to read it.

Midnight’s Children covers so many decades and is so loaded with history, personalities, and details both realistic and magical that it almost feels impossible that a film adaptation is being released this year. I hope I get a chance to see this film and find out if it’s anywhere as captivating as its source material.

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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht Tuesday, Apr 3 2012 

Natalia is a young doctor in an unnamed, fictionalized Balkan country. As she travels to a remote area to assist in inoculating children at an orphanage, she is coping with the recent death of her beloved grandfather, who was also a doctor. She tries to learn more about her grandfather and his life through the fantastical stories he left behind, namely the tale of the “deathless man,” whom Natalia’s grandfather encountered several times throughout his life, and one about “the tiger’s wife,” a mysterious young woman who befriended a tiger in the grandfather’s village when he was a child. In the midst of all this, Natalia is also confronted with the bizarre, morbid secrets of the area surrounding the orphanage where she is working.

Obreht certainly has an amazing way with words and the style of magical realism, and many passages in the novel are quite stunning as a result. The fables interwoven into Natalia’s story are especially captivating for their blending of magic into the real world. Unfortunately, this style gets in the way of the book having much substance. The Tiger’s Wife comes dangerously close to not having any plot. I wouldn’t expect such a meditative novel to be action-packed, but the book goes a little too far in the opposite direction. It felt as if absolutely nothing happened over the course of the novel, at least as far as Natalia was concerned. I did not believe that Natalia developed as a person or even learned anything important over the course of the novel; to be frank, I was never entirely sure what she was trying to learn or understand about her grandfather in the first place.

Nearly everything in the novel is connected by the theme of dealing with death and loss, especially in a war-torn region where these things are always present. However, Obreht never seems to have any deep insights about this theme, and the prose, beautiful though it may be, becomes so obscure and convoluted that I found it difficult to draw any conclusions about death, loss, and the author’s thoughts on those matters myself. This thematic hollowness is yet another example of nothing really happening in The Tiger’s Wife, albeit in a more theoretical way. Perhaps this is a characteristic of magical realism that I have yet to understand, but I found it disconcerting and disappointing. Even if a novel is not full of action, I like to learn something or have some more insight after reading it, and that simply did not happen with this book.

I wonder if I might have enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife more if it had been written as a series of loosely connected short stories. The fables of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife were very interesting and beautifully written, but the novel faltered when it shifted to the present and Natalia tried to connect these stories to learning more about her grandfather. The whole idea felt thinly stretched and completely unresolved by the end of the book. While Obreht definitely has a wonderful way with words and imagery, and a lot of potential, her debut novel definitely has the same major flaw I’ve seen with other young writers, and with a lot of so-called literary fiction in general. There is so much focus on the style that the plot is underdeveloped, and even the themes the author means to discuss get lost. In this particular case, I also thought that, for a novel so obviously intended to be “literary,” the characters were very one-dimensional and bland. As mentioned before, I saw practically no development on Natalia’s part over the course of the novel, and all her relationships appeared very superficial, even with the grandfather she claims to have loved and admired so much. Even the grandfather himself remains overly distant and undeveloped by the end of the book, when I’d expected that Natalia would have learned some deeper truths and understood him better at that point.

Basically, this is a book that had a lot of promise when I picked it up, but the potential was simply never fulfilled, at least not for me. I realize that this book has gotten many sparkling reviews and that I am somewhat of a contrary naysayer here. I do feel inspired now to read more established magical realism authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez, if for no other reason than to see what my overall response is to that style of writing. Still, even not having read much in this style, I think it’s way too soon to start counting Obreht as one of its great writers. Her use of language is impressive, but there isn’t quite enough depth to it yet. She’s got the style down, so I hope her future books will focus a little more on substance.