Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has the strange quality of a kaleidoscope of human lives - colourful, intricate and ultimately marvellous.’
There is much to be said for books that take you completely by surprise, and leave you wondering what the hell just happened.
I originally started reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness because I was intrigued by its cover - not very profound, I know. The front cover is stunning, and the back cover bears just a few works:
'How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
By slowly becoming everything.'
I mean, it doesn't get much more intriguing than that!
I really hesitated in reviewing this book, mainly because, even having read it in its entirety, I'm left feeling like I'm not too sure what to make of it.
There is no doubt that it's well-written. Roy's prose is stunning and completely unique in its style. It's deep, perhaps at times a little too much so, but it feels like every single word's been carefully thought through. It's like nothing I've ever read before.
If you asked me what the book is about, I'd struggle to answer. I know, even to my own ears that sounds odd. But the plot doesn't really have a clear beginning, a middle and an end.
It's a book about people. We dip in and out of these slices of life, getting up close and personal with each character. We get to know every single individual we meet on a profound, almost raw level, until they're nothing but bare emotions. And then we leave them be, zoom back out and onwards to the next.
The book has the strange quality of a kaleidoscope of human lives - colourful, intricate and ultimately marvellous. It is an ode to the multiple intertwined paths that make up the great canvas of life; in which each protagonists' experience of the world around them, no matter how small, has an impact. One where every single person, alive or dead, has their own part to play. By simply spearheading their own story, they carry the world forward in their own way.
In that regards, it does exactly what the back cover promised. It takes you through fragments of shattered stories, one after the other, and makes you explore what it's like to become everyone and everything.
I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to be an unusual book - and maybe this speaks more to a lack of literary sophistication on my part rather than to the book itself. Whilst not being an addictive page-turner, the book has a knack of making you want to read on, for the sheer pleasure of keeping yourself immersed in that strange, uncommon, slightly uncomfortable state. The style of writing and storytelling depicts the complexity of human experience with sometimes incredible clarity and simplicity. It keeps throwing these pearls of understanding of the human condition at you that make you go: 'Oh, of course, I see that. And what a beautiful way of putting it'.
So, if you asked me what the book was about, I still wouldn't quite know how to answer the question directly. And if you asked me if I liked it, I wouldn't even know what to say.
But since this is a book review, and I do have to try, I suppose I might say this: it's a book about people. About how vast and complex the puzzle of tangled human experiences can be. And I think I liked it, in a way. It took me out of my comfort zone, it took me by surprise and, at all times, the weird mystic of its style and flow kept me hooked.
I will leave you with this: I think that the great books of our lives are those which make you feel and think. Those that lead you to look at the world in a slightly different way and transport you to places you never thought you'd experience. For all of its quirks, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness does just that, in a way and at a pace that in turn surprise, baffle and delight. And maybe that makes it not the type of light bed-time reading you'd want to pick up after a busy day at the office, but it's definitely one of a kind and worth every minute spent with it.