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