You can’t really review the novels of Salman Rushdie without acknowledging that one of them nearly got him killed. The Satanic Verses is the proverbial elephant in the room, so I might as well address it first. The controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses annoys me, because it focuses on whether or not the book is offensive without asking whether or not it’s good. In my opinion, it isn’t. I’d even place it 2nd to last in my Rushdie ranking. It certainly has some very promising elements, but their development is hampered by superfluous subplots. (I also hate the fact that most of the people who called for censorship against this book probably never even read it, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Now that we’ve got Rushdie’s most infamous book out of the way, the next in line is his masterpiece: Midnight’s Children. It’s no coincidence that this book was declared Booker of Bookers. It deserves it. It’s a rich multi-generational story that illuminates history, while its deft use of magical realism ensures that it’s not bogged down by dry facts. This novel is Rushide’s most significant. If you only get a chance to read one, this is it. But it still isn’t my favourite.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories is thought of as (and possibly dismissed as) a ‘children’s book’, but I think it’s just as rewarding of a read for adults as it is for children, maybe even more so. It’s a great introduction to Rushdie’s fanciful side. And, unlike most of his other work, it’s an easy read. Rushdie’s exceptionally long sentences (strung together, as they are, into long books) have a tendency to trip people up. I think many people get bogged down in Midnight’s Children and give up. I have one very intelligent friend who put down Satanic Verses within the first few pages because he simply found it too hard to follow. But you can dodge these pitfalls by starting with Haroun. And most importantly, it’s fun!
The next four books on my list stand on fairly even footing, but my favourite among them is The Enchantress of Florence. Published more than 25 years after Midnight’s Children, this novel is just as sophisticated, but far more approachable. You get the sense that Rushdie finally learned how to make his writing more digestible without dumbing it down. Turn the clock back more than ten years and you’ll find that, while The Moor’s Last Sigh is just as strong as Enchantress, those verbal kinks haven’t been ironed out yet, so the story is more of a slog. Between these two, you get Shalimar the Clown. In it, you can see Rushdie moving towards the smoother quality of Enchantress, but maybe losing some of the richness in the process. One thing that this cluster of books suffers from, which is most evident in Shame, is making the reader feeling like they’ve been left out of an inside joke. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t read a fictionalised history of Pakistan without being puzzled by exactly who each character is mean to be lampooning. Of course, the internet can decode just about any historical factoid in disguise, but the process takes something away from the experience. Fortunately, Shame benefits from one of my favourite Rushdie tricks. In the same way that Midnight’s Children takes a strong sense of smell and makes it impossibly strong, Shame takes an embarrassed blush and turns that heat into something scorching. This device of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary is a real pleasure to read.
Despite being a sort of sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Luka and the Fire of Life just isn’t as enjoyable. It’s still a light read and I particularly liked the portrayal of Prometheus, but there’s something missing. Maybe, it’s just not as magical.
Similarly, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is a novel with something missing. Like Satanic Verses, it has some fantastic elements that are a real joy to explore, but most of the story feels like it’s struggling to gain momentum and, to whatever extent there is a build, it doesn’t really go anywhere. Also, Rushdie’s fixation on the jinns’ sexual appetites is absurdly distracting. We get it. They love sex. You don’t have to draw attention to it over and over!
Fury is the only one of Rushdie’s books that I might call an out and out failure. When he writes about Mumbai, Kashmir, or even Spain, it feels believable, but when he turns to New York City, he seems completely out of his depth. The whole ‘Little Brain’ subplot is especially ridiculous. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.
I do have a blindspot when it comes to Rushdie, because not only have I yet to read his first (Grimus) or last (The Golden House) novels, I’ve also unfortunately missed one in the middle: The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Still, from what I’ve managed to read, I’d say start with Haroun, don’t miss Midnight’s Children, and if you enjoy them both, branch out to Enchantress, Shame, Moor’s Last Sigh, and Shalimar. The others are missable.
Next time, I think I’ll take on another master of magical realism: Haruki Murakami. And, don’t worry. I’ve read every single one of his novels.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
The Enchantress of Florence
The Moor’s Last Sigh
Shalimar the Clown
Luka and the Fire of Life
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
The Satanic Verses