Details: (c) 1999 Salman Rushdie; Pub 1999 Trafalgar Square; ISBN 0-224-04419-2
Verdict: The ground beneath her feet is breathtakingly awesome.
Reasons for reading it: I love it with an abiding passion. And I happened to see adjacent posts on my flist with redbird reviewing The Armageddon Rag and wychwood reviewing this. It's been longer since I read tGBHF, mainly because my copy
How it came into my hands: I heard Rushdie himself reading and promoting tGBHF in Oxford in 1999, the year of its publication. (That was just about the only worthwhile event I got out of being gullible enough to join the Oxford Union.) Anyway, Rushdie reads almost as well as he writes, and I was quite convinced I had to read tGBHF. For some reason that I still don't comprehend, the book bombed, and within a few months I picked up the hardback cheap in a remainder shop.
tGBHF is easily one of the best and most enjoyable books I have ever read. I can't talk about it without gushing. (I should note that I have bounced off Midnight's Children several times, and haven't managed to read The Satanic Verses, though I am also very fond of Rushdie's YA book Haroun and the sea of stories.) Where to begin my explanation of why it is so wonderful? Characterization is very important to me, and I've rarely encountered characters I believe in and care about as much as the cast of tGBHF. On this reading I liked the narrator, Umeed / Rai, rather less than previously, but treating him as unreliable and reconstructing the story between the lines of his rather selfish viewpoint makes the book even more fun. The plot is twisty and complicated and clever and enjoyable throughout its wide range of different topics and scenarios, all of which are tied together in a brilliantly satisfying whole. It's full of verbal fireworks, with something quotable on almost every page, as well as joyful linguistic games and more allusions to the whole literary canon of the world than it would seem possible to fit into one book, (and there's an in-character reason for the style it's written in, too).
tGBHF has many of the qualities of the best speculative fiction and is simultaneously an intensely literary book, but it's literally in a class of its own, it's just outside genre (and that's counting litfic / mimetic as a genre). It's almost impossible to summarize what it's about: India, and rock music, and celebrity, and a fantastically complex but deeply romantic love story (I love the way that relationships are portrayed without the standard isolation of the central pair from everyone else that characterizes a lot of romance; the people in tGBHF are realistically interconnected to an extent that almost never happens in literature), and a character story for the Rai, and a reworking of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and a literary exploration of the big philosophical questions, and a biting satire of 1990s geopolitics. The last part may explain its lack of success; it's very much a book of its time (for example, the death of Princess Diana is an important, if thinly disguised, theme), and perhaps just too cutting edge Zeitgeisty to last. It pulls off the alternate history trick with metafictional elements that fails so spectacularly in Mary Gentle's Ash.
I realized reading it that the comparison with The Armageddon Rag is not only one of quality; they are thematically amazingly similar, even down to a climactic scene where a mega-celebrity rock group plays a reunion tour starring a lookalike of their dead lead singer and the incipient violence is dramatically defused. tGBHF is not quite as word-perfect as The Armageddon Rag, but it's not far off and it's a rather more complex and ambitious book.
I think the final few chapters are slightly weaker than the main bulk of the book; it would probably have been closer to artistic perfection if it had simply closed the loop from the opening scence with Vina's death, flashing back over her entire lifetime and bringing the story around to her death again, this time with the readers having far more information. The several chapters discussing her Diana-like apotheosis and the grief and eventual recovery of Ormus and Rai, as well as resolving the many worlds stuff hinted at earlier, are a long way from being bad, just marginally less wonderful than the preceding sections. They do have the advantage of providing some kind of hope rather than leaving the book with an absolutely tragic ending, though ironically there is considerable discussion within the narrative itself of how most modern versions of Orpheus ruin the impact by giving it a happy ending!
Given how much I love the book, and given its extreme lack of commercial success meaning that it is very hard to find copies, I am extremely annoyed that I managed to lose my copy in the chaos of the BM class video evening yesterday. I went back to the Jewish centre today to see if I could recover it, but no luck. This not only means I don't have it any more, it means I can't lend it to the people I really want to convince to read it. compilerbitch, for example: it's a book about rock music narrated by a photographer, and from what I know of your tastes I'm fairly certain you'd love it.