Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children

Title: Midnight’s Children
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publication date: 1981
Country/culture: India/Pakistan

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

Midnight's ChildrenWhat’s it about?

Saleem Sinai is born at the very moment India gains its independence, and later finds himself gifted with extraordinary telepathic powers. He perceives his own life as inextricably intertwined with that of his country, and we see their stories develop in parallel as the young country and the young boy begin to find their purpose and their way in the world.

What did I find out?

I started to read this book on a warm afternoon, sitting outside in my garden with a glass of cold lemon by my side and the sun toasting my back. As I read on through pages describing life in India – a hot country – it felt somehow appropriate to be absorbing this story in such weather. Obviously there is a vast difference between British heat (especially in April) and Indian heat, but it was a gentle reminder that appreciation of a book can be enhanced by one’s reading environment.

The books on my list for this year have been selected from around the globe, and I have tried to alternate longer books and shorter ones; I’ve not actively attempted to fit them in at a time of year when the weather suits the country of origin of the work. This would probably put too many limitations on what is already a big scheduling issue for me (and not least because the British weather is so unpredictable). However, it’s something I will bear in mind for the future.

What do I now see differently?

Midnight’s Children is undeniably a work of literary fiction, a genre I don’t usually gravitate towards – but it also has a strong element of magical realism, in the depiction of the special powers and abilities of the ‘midnight children’, from telepathy to time travel to sorcery, and more. This perhaps shifted the novel into territory I am more familiar with, thus making it a slightly easier prospect than it otherwise might have been (not least because, at over 600 pages, this is the longest book on my list this year).

I realised (or was reminded) that ‘genre’, while sometimes a helpful concept (particularly in libraries and bookshops, where items have to be shelved in a single physical location), is also an artificial construct. Books can happily overlap genres without necessarily confusing the reader; indeed, it is perhaps by insisting on a label in the first place that we throw up barriers where none need be. Magical realism, to my mind, is a form of fantasy; and while fantasy is sometimes looked down on by readers of literary fiction, the fantastical elements of this novel intrigued me and made me pick it up – thus introducing me to a work I would probably never have considered otherwise.

This is a reassuring realisation, and I’ve decided not to worry (yet) about what genre my novel fits into (supernatural? paranormal? fantasy? horror? medical? thriller?) and just write the thing. The time for finding readers will come later.

How will this inspire my writing?

Midnight’s Children is an incredible tale, interweaving personal stories with national ones and layering themes, leitmotifs and imagery with supreme skill. This can only be something to aspire to! The length of the book, the period of time it covers and the subject matter make the intertwining of recurring elements particularly compelling, but I think that even shorter, less ambitious books can learn from it. I am only 26,000 words into my own novel, but I’ve already made a start at using imagery in my presentation of certain characters, as a kind of shorthand to illustrate their lives and relationships.

My novel won’t reach the dizzying heights of Midnight’s Children, but I’ll certainly be taking a deeper look at how I use themes and imagery to underscore key parts of the story.

A musical interlude

Although this song doesn’t exactly reflect Saleem’s specific narrative, I feel that there are enough similarities between its content and his experiences to at least make it worthy of a ‘Discuss!’ essay question. You may discuss if you like – or just listen.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea

Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Publication date: 1966

What’s it about?Wide Sargasso Sea

The novel acts as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and imagines the life of the first Mrs Rochester: the ‘madwoman in the attic’. It traces her story from her childhood in the Caribbean through to her marriage, its deterioration and her subsequent experiences in England.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was a birthday present.

I’ve also made the decision that, from next year, I won’t continue to list the source of my books, as I’m not sure this necessarily adds to the value of the blog posts. They’re either from the university library or the public library, are a present or already on my bookshelves, or I’ve had to buy them especially. I’m not sure there’s much more to say!

What did I learn from it?

Having never read Jane Eyre, I obviously picked up intriguing hints about it from this account of the first Mrs Rochester. I guess most people coming to Wide Sargasso Sea will have read Bronte’s novel previously, and will perhaps see Antoinette’s story from an alternative perspective; but this is my first encounter with her, and so when I come to read Jane Eyre (as I will inevitably have to do at some point), I imagine I’ll view the characters of Jane and Rochester rather differently.

In factual terms, I also learned a certain amount (as always!) about the historical period in which the book is set: that is, shortly after the formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire. We see the effect the Slavery Abolition Act had on Caribbean inhabitants of all races, mainly through the eyes of a Creole woman but also through those of an ‘outsider’, Rochester.

Funnily enough, the book I picked up to read after this one was Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair: totally by chance, I promise, unless my subconscious was having a laugh. And it’s thanks to Jean Rhys’s novel that I was able to recognise one of the chapter headings, ‘Thornfield Hall’, as Rochester’s home in England. I’m sure more connections will strike me as I read on.

How did it make me see the world differently?

It reminded me of the reactions I’d had to key characters in two previous Book Diaries reads: the first Mrs de Winter in Rebecca and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If you’ve read those two posts, you’ll recall that I didn’t particularly like either of those characters. At the time I thought this was perhaps because I am an introverted book lover and they are both extroverted party girls; it’s natural that I should stick up for the quiet and the downtrodden against the wild, loud, confident ones who seem to rule the Earth.

However, this novel challenged those feelings. I felt hugely sympathetic towards Antoinette Cosway – and yet at the end I realised that, in the story of Jane Eyre, she must play the part of the wild first wife in much the same way as Rebecca does in du Maurier’s novel. (At least, I have to assume so.) Why, then did I feel so much understanding towards her when I couldn’t towards the other?

The most obvious explanation is that, in Wide Sargasso Sea, we are being told the story from her own perspective, not that of a man or a (biased) successor. Rochester (who is unnamed in this novel) does take up the narration in Part Two, but this is only after we have heard Antoinette describe her own experiences, and seen at first hand how she has been affected and treated by those around her. Rather than feel sympathy for Rochester, therefore, we may view his attitude to her as a further exacerbation of her troubles; although he does appear to have been deceived by his family and friends regarding the marriage, this does not absolve him of all responsibility for the situation.

I’ve been reminded of the valuable lesson that we should not judge another person until we have heard their story from their own lips.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

As I read the novel, I found myself utterly absorbed by the gorgeous verbal pictures Rhys paints of the Caribbean. The vast majority of the book is set in either Jamaica or Dominica, and as the islands are Antoinette’s home, and she feels a strong attachment to them, the overwhelming impression I receive is one of joy, beauty and belonging. The heat, the aromas, the landscape… all contribute to an image of a place that I find myself thinking it would be a delight to visit.

And so I’ve found a potential focus for my next big holiday. Having just come back from a three-week road trip, it’s going to be some time before we can afford to go off on another long-haul jaunt – but the Caribbean has just found its way to the top of my list for when we do make those plans.

Given that I need to write an update in three months’ time to say whether or not I achieved this change (which clearly isn’t going to be possible), I will commit to at least starting up a holiday fund: putting away a certain amount of money each month towards this specific goal. It may be small, but it’s a step in the right direction: and that’s really what the Book Diaries are all about.

A musical interlude

I’m not entirely happy with this song choice, as it captures Rochester’s view of Antoinette rather than her true nature. However, the vibe of the track fits the overall mood of the book – hot and sultry – so I’m sticking with it.

It’s Black Magic Woman by Santana.