Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The first novel in 20 years from Roy (The God of Small Things, 1997, etc.) and a book worth the wait: a humane, engaged tale of love, politics, and no small amount of suffering. Who is the fairest of them all, Anjum or Tilottama? Both are beautiful, each in her own way, but time has not been kind to either. Born with both male and female genitals and likened to the disappearing corpse-cleaning vultures of India, Anjum lives among ghosts, while Tilo has been caught up in an independence movement and risks execution at the hands of a coldly technocratic army officer. Roy’s latest begins as a near fairy tale that soon turns dark, full of characters and their meetings, accidental and orchestrated alike, in the streets, rooming houses, and business offices of Delhi: school friends become partners in political crime, lovers become strangers to one another. Of one such pair, Roy writes, “He, a revolutionary trapped in an accountant’s mind. She, a woman trapped in a man’s body.” But, Roy tells us, identities are what we make of them; in an early scene, the mother of a child the other children taunt as “She-He, He-She Hee!” seeks guidance in a temple consecrated to a Jewish merchant who moved from Armenia to Delhi, converted to Islam, and ended life dangerously committing blasphemy by virtue of his uncertainty about the nature of God. So it is with all the people of Roy’s book, each trying to live right in this world of “fucked-up unexpectedness.” Roy’s novel shows clear kinship with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, a story that, like hers, begins and ends with death; the first and last place we see here is a cemetery. But there are other echoes, including a nicely subtle nod to Salman Rushdie, as Roy constructs a busy world in which characters cross boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and gender to find, yes, that utmost happiness of which the title speaks. An assured novel borne along by a swiftly moving storyline that addresses the most profound issues with elegant humor. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait two decades for its successor. COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.