Kit’s Crit: Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)

Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) is a classic example of magical realism, but it is also a satirical historical fiction.  The unreliable narrator – Saleem Sinai – is one of 1001 children born between midnight and 1.00am on August 15, 1947, which was the moment of India’s independence from Britain.  Although he is the bastard child of a beggar woman, a nurse switches him at birth with another boy called Shiva, so he grows up as the only son of a wealthy couple.  All of the children arriving in the same hour as the birth of the new nation are endowed with special powers – “transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry,” but Saleem has the most powerful gift of all.  He is telepathic and able to communicate with the other gifted youngsters across the country.  Saleem persuades them to form the MCC (Midnight Children’s Conference), but even with all their combined powers they end up being persecuted by the authorities.

Rushdie uses magical realism to construct a parallel history between the person (Saleem) and the state (India) in the fairy-tale style of the Arabian Nights.  The hero becomes entwined in a series of events that are not only fantastical, but are often scientifically dubious at best, and historically inaccurate at worst.  This creates confusion, uncertainty, and a shift in the reader’s reality that many critics have found disturbing.  Rushdie’s symbolism is also  heavy-handed.  There is little subtlety in his continual reference to snakes, ladders, noses, and knees.

The strength of Midnight’s Children lies in the central theme: What is reality?  Rushdie makes us question history, fact, truth, memory, and narrative.  Ultimately, truth depends “on perspective and belief.”  He decides that, “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”

Midnight’s Children is often compared with Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.  Both novels are mystical, philosophical, and enchanting – yet the German Classic has an additional lyrical element that I found more compelling.

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 (Photo: Kit Perriman)

Kit’s Crit: Like Water For Chocolate (Laura Esquivel)

Chocolate

Like Water For Chocolate (New York: Doubleday,1992) is a strange debut novel written in the magical-realism tradition.  The title comes from “an extremity of feeling” – perhaps sexual desire – where intense emotion melts the human heart, mind, or soul, just as boiling water melts chocolate.

Esquivel explores the impact of old Mexican traditions within modern culture, examining the filial responsibilities of a child to its parents, gender issues, personal sacrifice for the greater good, and the role of food as a metaphor for human feelings.

While I like the original premise that recipes contain secrets and can change with the fluctuating moods of the cook, this is not a book I would read more than once because the breaks from reality, sequencing, and characterizations sometimes make the tale a little too hard to swallow!

Kit’s Crit: The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)

Allende Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is my first encounter with Latin American magical realism (New York: Random, 2005).  This epic saga follows three generations of a Chilean family – headed by the determined patriarch Esteban Truebas – as they experience joy, tragedy, struggle, rebellion, and political turmoil, in a world where the supernatural mingles alongside reality.

The House of the Spirits contains magic, ghosts, poison, and demonic possession, and it functions as an allegory of the South American world where Allende grew up.  It is a novel designed to “reclaim the past” and “overcome the terrors” of Chilean history (433).

Allende successfully employs symbolism, mysticism, and nationalism in a vivid drama of political turmoil and feminist rebellion.  And while the novel itself does not rank as great literature, it is an excellent example of lush storytelling and descriptive writing – a tale that resonates with the poetic musicality of the Latino language.

I would recommend The House of the Spirits to those readers seeking a unique, well-crafted, multi-cultural experience. 

 

Kit’s Crit: Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

Golding

Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) tops my list of all-time favorite books!

In the wake of a nuclear war, a group of school boys are being evacuated from England when their aircraft is shot down.  The survivors land on an isolated tropical island with no adult presence.  Here,they have to fend for themselves. The children ultimately form two rival gangs and soon cross the line from civilization into savagery.

There are three main reasons why Lord of the Flies is the perfect novel.  Firstly. it is an allegory that makes readers question their moral, spiritual, anthropological, and psychological beliefs about childhood innocence.  Secondly, Golding produces a beautiful cocktail of modern and poetic language where every sentence advances the action, or reveals something important about one of the central characters. And thirdly, he incorporates mythology, magical realism, anthropological research, religion, and psychology to build up the tension with carefully crafted foreshadowing and symbolism.  This is a very tight, taut, controlled horror story full of unpredictable events, where the only relief comes right at the end.

Lord of the Flies exposes the darkness of the human condition.  It is a pessimistic examination of everything we hold sacred.  And that is why it so wonderfully terrifying.

Kit’s Crit: The Wise Woman (Philippa Gregory)

Gregory

The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory

This historical fiction begins in 1540 and follows the tragic life of seventeen-year-old Alys, a young peasant girl in Tudor England.  Alys grew up on the moor with a harsh foster-mother called Morach, the local wise woman.  But turning her back on superstition and the pagan arts, Alys decides to join a nunnery.  For a time she finds contentment in this orderly sanctuary.  She enjoys the rigid structure, comparative luxury, and the safety afforded to the Holy Sisters.

But Alys happiness is short lived.  One night the monastery burns to the ground, a casualty of King Henry’s Reformation, and the young woman is summoned to the local castle to work as a scribe for the ailing lord of the manor.   Here she falls in love with his married son and heir, Lord Hugo.  She grows intently jealous of the Lady Catherine, and seeks to replace her in Hugo’s bed.  Calling on all the cunning tricks she recalls from living with Morach, Alys devises a difficult, disturbing plot to gain her heart’s desire.  At this point the novel slips into magical realism.

Gregory’s story has many Faustian overtones.  Alys conjures up the powers of darkness to possess the man she fixates on, aware that her actions are prompted by self-promotion rather than genuine love.  By the end of the book the Wise Woman is exposed as self-centered, unlikable, and evil – and therefore she meets with a hellish end.

The Wise Woman can also be read as a morality tale.  Although Alys is a victim of historical circumstance, feudalism, and gender, she serves as a warning against forbidden love and obsession.  She tries to take the rightful place of another woman – a place where she can never truly belong.  Alys discovers she has the power to unleash terrible things on the world, but by the time she realizes she has little control over them, it is too late to go back.  She sinks further and further into witchcraft.

I enjoyed the atmospheric setting of Gregory’s novel, and not expecting to sympathize with the central characters I was pleased to find them portrayed in a refreshingly honest way – warts and all!  The historical research is sound and convincing, and any book set in the medieval era must acknowledge the common superstitious beliefs of that time.

This is not a feel-good story.  It suggests everything in Alys’ world is a sham – magic, life, love, faith, and family.  But one of the great joys of reading is the ability to close the book at any point and find yourself back in the twenty-first century!