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2017 Man Booker Longlist: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

ministry of utmost

Book 11 for our shadow panel is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Once again our panel reviewed the book on the following criteria: 1) writing quality; 2) originality; 3) character development; 4) plot development; and 5) overall enjoyment. We’ve each provided mini-reviews and ratings. Let us know what you thought of the book too. Here are our ratings for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness…

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
2017 Man Booker (longlist)
Published in: 2017
Judges: Jen, Book Worm, & Lisa
Find it/buy it here: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Synopsis (from Amazon): The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent—from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.

It is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Each of its characters is indelibly, tenderly rendered. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love—and by hope.

The tale begins with Anjum—who used to be Aftab—unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her—including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover; their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo’s landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then we meet the two Miss Jebeens: the first a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard; the second found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.

Jen’s Review: I read this book before the longlist was announced and I didn’t think it would (or should) make the list. I LOVED her first book and think it deserved to win the Man Booker, but I did not love this book. As I mentioned in an earlier review (Swing Time), this year’s list seems full of books that attempt to pack in too much material and there was no worst offender of this than The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. As can be expected of Roy, this book is brilliantly written. In fact I think I highlighted half the book because the writing was truly beautifully and quote worthy. The problem I had with it was that she attempted to pack in too much into one book (e.g., political, religious, sociological, transgender, and cultural issues) and as such I found it disjointed, chaotic, and disorganized. She does bring the various threads together at the end but it was a long journey to get to the end and I found my attention wandering and ultimately was left feeling lukewarm and detached from any one storyline or character.

I acknowledge that this chaotic and disjointed narrative approach was clearly intentional and done to mimic the chaos seen in Indian political and social life – that much is clear from the quote at the end of the book about telling a shattered story. However, as a narrative style it didn’t work for me. It was a 3-star read for me. I found some parts brilliant but felt emotionally disconnected from what should have been a very emotional impactful book.

I do think many people will like it overall (and I’ve seen some people say this is their favorite on the list) but I don’t think it merits making the shortlist. That said, I’m pretty convinced that this one will make it onto the shortlist.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 13/20

Book Worm’s Review:  I agree with Jen that Roy has packed a lot into this book, however I didn’t find it as disjointed as Jen did. Each character in each narrative has a connection (think 3 degrees of separation) to Anjum, the transgender individual with whom the narrative opens and closes.

This is a book about the ugly side of India and much of the book is taken up with scenes of religious intolerance, murder, torture, rape and civil war. All of the characters have their own personal tragedies and this is not a happy read. At points it is stomach churning in its graphic portrayal of  torture and murder by mob. It is also highly politicized and Roy appears to be using her characters to get her own political feelings across (nothing wrong with that plenty of authors do it). The real shame of it is that despite the moments of happiness, it appears the outlook for India according to Roy is one of hopelessness and never ending war.

The sections I enjoyed most are those set in the graveyard where the ghosts are as much a part of life as the living. I enjoyed the touch of magical realism whereby the graveyard angels illegally keep the door to the after life open so that the dead can visit the living. (Graveyards and the dead seem to be a popular Man Booker theme this year).

While Roy is a gifted writer, this is another book, like Swing Time, that I believe has made it onto the longlist solely based on who the writer is, rather than the merits of the book itself.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 12/20

Lisa’s Review: There are sections in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that are very moving — particularly those that paint a picture of the day-to-day deadly conflict in Kashmir. The unnecessary deaths are heartbreaking. Further, the author has beautiful, clear narrative writing style. However, overall, I thought that this book was too complicated, and I did not like the structure of the book as a whole. The novel starts with the story of Anjum, but then leaves that story line about one third of the way through the book, only really returning to it at the very end. Along the way, there were so many characters introduced that I needed to make peace with the fact that I just could not keep track of all of their backstories. This was difficult because, as you learn about the different characters, you don’t know which ones will be important later in the book. Unfortunately, I found this frustrating and it cut down on my enjoyment of the book.

Writing quality:4/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development:3/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment:1/2
Total: 13/20

Average score across all panelists: 12.66/20

Our Collective Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Exit West by Hamid: 17.4/20
2. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: 16.8/20
3. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack: 16.67/20
4. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: 16/20
4. Home Fire 16/20
6. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund: 15.4/20
7. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: 14.87/20
8. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: 13.9/20
9. Swing Time by Zadie Smith: 13.7/20
10. Elmet by Fiona Mozley : 13.5/20
11. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: 12.67

Next up: Autumn

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nicole R #

    Well, this convinces me that I should take this one off my TBR and put back on The God of Small Things.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 7, 2017
    • I would say read that first but many people love this one so check out a few of the glowing reviews


      September 7, 2017
    • I’m not sure you’ll like the God of Small Things but worth a try. The writing is adjective. LOL


      September 7, 2017
  2. I just don’t feel inspired to read this, but I do have it on hold. I started the audio but it was clear 2 sentences in that this is not a book for audio.


    September 7, 2017
  3. After 20 years of silence I can imagine Roy has indeed built up a reservoir of things she wants to say. I’ve seen reviews of this book that were rather more favourable but also comments that it was at times difficult to read because she covers so much ground

    Liked by 1 person

    September 8, 2017
    • I didn’t find it particularly difficult to read but rather I found it distracting and emotionally empty. That sounds harsh but I found it hard to connect on an emotional level because any time I felt interested or involved in a storyline, it switched to something else. Thus a book that I feel had potential to pack an emotionally powerful punch fell flat because the narrative style worked against it – for me. I can certainly understand why many people loved it because it did present an interesting view of a country but I prefer books that are more focused and allow for greater, in depth analysis of one issue rather than those that tackle 10+ important issues in a more surface level. There is value in both approaches, I just personally prefer one more than the other.


      September 8, 2017
      • I would find that switching frustrating too. I’ll put it on my list to read and hope that doesn’t become too much of an issue

        Liked by 1 person

        September 9, 2017
      • I hope you like it


        September 9, 2017
  4. This is a book that has the potential to disappoint, I think. Her first novel was so good, and there has been such a long gap between it and this that expectation was bound to be high. I’ll probably read it at some point, just because I enjoyed The God of Small Things so much, but I’ll temper my expectations!

    Liked by 1 person

    October 15, 2017

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