Believe it or not, this is my first Salman Rushdie. He never struck me as the kind of author would appeal to me, but when I read he’d tackled magic realism genre with a literary somersault … Well, it’s got to be worth a look, hasn’t it?
The inconveniently-titled Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-eight Nights is an account of the war between humanity and a race of mythical genies who’ve breached the barriers between our world and their own. The genies are all-powerful, all-knowing and sex-mad. The human race is understandably bewildered. Along the way, we dip in and out of the lives of several mortals who happen to be descendents of one particular genie who has a soft spot for humanity. They live fairly ordinary lives, aside from being blessed/cursed with a random super-power. We have a baby that inflicts skin decay on anyone who tells a lie in its presence, and a gardener whose feet don’t touch the ground. These mortals are eventually gathered and recruited by their jinnia ancestor to fight for humanity…
All very odd.
The book is told from an extreme omniscient viewpoint: the storyteller is recounting the history of the war from a thousand years in the future, which lets him to jump from scene to scene and character to character (living or dead) with an almost manic abandon. It’s a very effective way to write a story covering centuries of religion, mysticism and numerous locations, but the book tends to sacrifice character development to do it. You never get a real sense of depth from any of the players, and after a while they all seem very similar.
The story itself is deeply philosophical and very dense; it clearly demonstrates the authors knowledge of religion/mythology, and his ability to weave these ideas together into a thought-provoking epic. It unashamedly aims to be a literary work, and while I was reading it I wondered if it was perhaps trying too hard. I like the odd passage of flowery exposition as much as the next man, but in many places I found it a bit repetitive: we’d have a passage of near-poetry telling us about a character, and then almost straight away, another passage saying the same thing. The book was a classic slow-burner, but the pace picked up as the war progressed: the expositions thinned out and the writing became much tighter.
I sometimes stumble into the school of thought that says the reader should expect to work hard to appreciate literary fiction. Well, for me this book was quite hard work, and while I appreciated the effort that had gone into it, I wasn’t sure I completely enjoyed it. Some of the phrasing certainly made me think, ‘Wow – that was bloody good’, but on the whole it didn’t really move me, and when I’m reading literary fiction, that’s what I’m looking for. A good story though: highly original, well told and with some genuinely funny moments.
Six out of ten