The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
It’s unusual to come across a novel that makes you feel like you are part of a world, and simultaneously totally ignorant of every aspect of that world. This paradox of belonging is what I’ve taken away from Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. At the centre of this book is a powerful and mesmerising woman: Anjum, a Hijra matriarch and landlady of a guesthouse she built herself (in a cemetery, no less). Everything seems either to come from, or come back to, Anjum. At times, this focus is direct, but often Anjum’s story flits in and out of the spotlight. I found this to be a fascinating way to craft a protagonist.
Roy’s prose crackles with electricity, and has an irresistible poetry to it. Something that fascinates me about Roy is that I find her writing to be at its best when she writes about unpleasant things. As in her first novel, The God of Small Things, Roy makes traumatic incidents visceral, but in a bizarrely respectful way. When she does write about terrible things, she does so in a way that forces you to realise that sadness is just one of many threads woven into life’s rich tapestry.
This is what I like to term a ‘big’ book. Its characters are many, its plot sprawling and its setting ever-changing. Reading becomes immersive experience. There’s a distinct Dickensian aftertaste to it – its characters are at once larger than life and entirely believable. It does not, however, have the distinctly rigid narrative arc that is so common to Dickens’s novels. Roy is not interested in tying her ends up neatly – this unruly story bleeds out beyond its beginning, middle and end. This is a novel of unlikely mothers, lucky children, trauma, war, happiness, belonging and identity. It’s one of those rare, wonderful books that truly feels like real life.
Ellen Cregen works as a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.