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The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness

Arund­hati Roy (Hamish Hamil­ton, £18.99)

In her es­say ‘The end of Imag­i­na­tion’, pub­lished shortly af­ter her first novel The God of Small Things (1997) won the Booker Prize, Arund­hati roy con­demned her­self to be a vic­tim of her own suc­cess. A friend, she re­lates, had warned her that such a strato­spheric rise to fame could only have one ‘per­fect end­ing’: the au­thor’s death. Or, at least, the end of novel writ­ing. She fore­saw that it was all down­hill from here.

Only a work of ge­nius could break the curse, so it’s not sur­pris­ing that Miss roy’s sec­ond novel has been 20 years in the mak­ing. Whereas The God of Small Things was a tightly knit para­ble fo­cus­ing on the his­tory of a fam­ily in Ker­ala, The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness is a sprawl­ing con­struc­tion of in­ter­lock­ing sto­ries that as­pires to cover the length and breadth of the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent. We meet cross­dressers and grave dig­gers, goat breed­ers and re­li­gious lead­ers, minutely de­scribed lives which, if not ex­actly seam­lessly con­nected, com­bine to form a com­plex, kalei­do­scopic world view.

This is a far more po­lit­i­cal novel, or at least it dis­penses with much of the soft-fo­cus sen­su­al­ity that safe­typroofed The God of Small Things. ‘The end of Imag­i­na­tion’ her­alded the au­thor’s emer­gence as a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist; it was a fierce polemic against In­dia’s de­vel­op­ment of nu­clear weapons and, over the past two decades, she’s been deeply in­volved in en­vi­ron­men­tal and hu­man-rights causes.

It’s clear that the in­ter­ven­ing years have pro­vided plenty of char­ac­ter sketches and anec­dotes for the mag­num opus yet, at times, the book can read like an over­flow­ing note­book, pages glued to­gether with sec­tions of ex­po­si­tion. I can’t help but wish that it had been dis­tilled into a se­ries of tighter, shorter nov­els. Then again, Miss roy has wider con­cerns than pleas­ing her read­ers. Matilda Bathurst

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