The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is probably the most ambitious Man Booker Prize longlisted book I have read in recent years. It crafts a huge number of characters into a book which is more like a collection of interlinking thoughts than a running narrative. The way Arundati Roy jumps around between characters’ story lines in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is intriguing but in my opinion detrimental to the book.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness starts with the tale of Anjum, a Hijra: a child born into the world with no defined gender. Arundati Roy opens up the world of the Indian Hijras living in the Khwabgah or ‘House of Dreams’. This first part is arguably the book’s best section as it manages to paint something distant to the western reader with such intimacy. Roy moves from Anjum to S. Tilottama for her next story. She is introduced through the lives of the three men who have loved her. Here is where the book starts to get more confusing as Roy skips between characters and takes moments to delve into their past histories.
It is quite refreshing reading because Roy seems to defy any formal structure within her story. This is a firm reason why this book is worthy of the Man Booker Prize longlist. As the blurb of the book so cogently puts it: the book ‘reinvents what a novel can do and can be’. However, for me, the author indulges her tangents and side stories to the detraction of what could be a very powerful book about a central individual. Anjum remains in the book throughout as the characters eventually converge in a make shift house in a graveyard, which is not as eerie as it sounds. Yet she remains a side character in the second part of the book.
Despite this, Roy’s writing style is lovely to read as it is very descriptive. There are moments in which she descends into multiple long lists of descriptive words within a few pages which are confusing. Most of the time her descriptive tone serves to add depth and emotion to the circumstances in the narrative- something that is very impressive considering the serious nature of the subject matter.
This book shows the markings of an incredible and completely unique writer at the top of her craft. However, it feels at times as if it is an anthology of her writing rather than a novel. I would definitely recommend that you read the book because it is amazingly written, but don’t expect to get a story told from start to finish. It is instead a glimpse at some of the stories Roy has chosen to tell, as if she could have told so many more.
Image: Katie Butler