One question: how is it already July? Sometimes it’s scary how quickly time slips by without you even knowing. That’s why I think it’s pretty ironic that this month I ended up reading two books where time is kind of key. In both of June’s reads the main characters’ desire to stop time is contrasted by the reality of the worlds around them. And, whilst the situations of both stories may be unique, I think the wish to make the world stand still for a little bit is pretty relatable…
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
Having read The God of Small Things a while ago, I was excited to give this novel a go. If The God of Small Things is anything to go by, Arundhati Roy clearly isn’t afraid to toe the line between the exception and the rule and between innocence and evil.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness tells a number of stories, all taking place during India’s turbulent modern history. Starting with “Anjum, who used to be Aftab”, the idea of stopping time and splitting the world into the near and the far is pretty clear. Anjum is a “hijra”, an intersex woman who, after being raised as a boy, runs away (but only down the road) to live in the “Khwabgah”, a place of safety for the hijras of the Old Delhi society in which the story begins.
Obviously, since I don’t speak Urdu, I had to have a quick Google to see what a Khwabgah was, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it means “Dream Palace”. Contrasting the to the Hindi word “Duniya” which means The World, the novel literally opens with the creation of a microcosm separated from the troubles and traumas of the Duniya.
This is mirrored when, later, Anjum opens the Jannat Guest House, built around the graves of her estranged family. Anjum is literally trying to reclaim her history, confining it into the walls of her home for only her and her “elite” group of guests to see and know.
This “elite” group is made up of outcasts and pariahs, who are carefully selected by Anjum, according to which criteria no one is sure. They include Saddam Hussain or Dayachand, the odd-jobs man on a mission to avenge his father’s death by idolising the actual Saddam Hussein and Tilo, the architect (and the story’s other protagonist) who runs away from her marriage, adopts an abandoned baby and eventually ends up as a permanent guest in the Jannat Guest House.
The fact that the cast is mainly made up of women and children is, I think, no accident. In some ways, I think it signals the main contrast that Roy is trying to create; that the “real world” and the world of the everyday are incredibly far removed. The wars that rage throughout the novel are almost solely the domain of men, with women, children and child-like adults being the unfortunate and helpless bystanders.
There’s so much going on in this book that I could write an actual essay about it, so I’ll stop here. What I will say is that this book is as moving as Arundhati Roy’s first novel and it’s one that will stay with me for a long time.
We Have Always Lived in a Castle – Shirley Jackson
If I could describe this book in one word, I would say “insidious”. Part mystery, part horror, We Have Always Lived in a Castle tells the story of Merricat and the remains of her family; her sister Constance and her uncle Julian.
Isolated from their village due to the mysterious deaths of the rest of their family, Merricat, Constance and Uncle Julian live an isolated and agoraphobic life in their ancestral home. Their lives are defined by strict routine and a bid to keep everything just the same as it’s always been.
At the outset, it seems that, apart from Merricat’s two weekly visits to the village for supplies, the remains of the Blackwood family live in an idyllic fairytale world; they have, after all, always lived in a castle.
However, subtle hints throughout the narrative suggest that all is not as it seems. Uncle Julian is clearly ailing and his obsessive writing and rewriting of his memoirs suggests a disquieted mind. Merricat’s childlike narrative voice and her obsession with magic and talismans creates unrest in anyone with a suspicion of little girl ghosts.
When one of Merricat’s charms, a book nailed to a tree, falls down, she becomes convinced and terrified of an imminent change to their regimented existence. This is when Cousin Charles arrives. With a strong resemblance to the girls’ deceased father, Cousin Charles soon becomes a demon and a ghost in Merricat’s mind. This could be motivated by two things; one, her aversion to change and two, the manifestation of subconscious guilt that Merricat feels for the crimes she committed against her family, and that Constance was accused for.
Ironically, in a bid to keep things exactly the same and expel Charles from the house, Merricat initiates the biggest change in the whole narrative; she starts a fire that destroys the entire house, expect the kitchen.
The kitchen is an important part of the story and characterisation. First off, food is very much fetishised in the novel, in no small part because it becomes the murder weapon (the sugar the deceased family uses is poisoned). Merricat – who, due to her sadistic narrative, becomes the obvious culprit of the murders – is obsessed with poison as much as she is obsessed with the Blackwood family’s preserves in the cellar. She’s also constantly asking Constance, the fairy godmother figure, for special foods.
Again, there’s a lot going on in We Have Always Lived in a Castle, especially considering it’s only 146 pages. It’s such a fascinating look into the mind of what can only be described as a sociopath (Merricat) and is definitely worth a read for anyone into more psychologically motivated novels.