Perhaps it’s a pitfall of success: once an author starts selling squillions or collecting those shiny statues on the international awards circuit they think they can start ignoring or overruling their editors.
And the work, inevitably, suffers.
Arundhati Roy’s debut novel, The God Small Things, was a critical and commercial darling, selling more than six million copies worldwide and earning her a Man Booker Prize.
Twenty years later she’s finally back with a follow-up but time hasn’t inoculated her against the sophomore slump.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a mess. Often beautiful and sometimes brilliant, it’s a wild, unrestrained book ultimately undone by structural sloppiness and the heavy load of Roy’s political polemicism.
I’m not disappointed, exactly, because my expectations were not high: I’m one of the apparently few people who believed The God of Small Things was terribly overrated, a handsome but slight novel.
Ministry makes it look like a masterpiece of focus and restraint. Twice the size of its predecessor, it’s a sprawling two-pronged tale focused on two women: Anjum, a transgender “Hijra” growing up and making her way amid the stark class and caste divides of New Delhi; and Tilo, an activist who is drawn by the three men who love her into the conflict in Kashmir.
Anjum’s story is much more compelling but sadly only makes up a third of the novel. Tilo’s story feels aimless by comparison, and the two streams never cohere in a particularly satisfying way.
If you love Roy’s non-fiction you might enjoy that a good chunk of the book is given over to her political pointmaking. I found it tiresome and ham-fisted, all too often getting in the way of the story and the characters.
A good editor could have made vast improvements by cutting 100 of those pages.