‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’: Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited new novel is grand and perplexing

The upside of writing a breakout debut novel, of course, is becoming a best-seller and a literary household name; the downside, at least for many authors, is being put in the unenviably stressful position of having an eagerly awaited second one. When a work of literature bursts onto the scene in a tidal wave of success, the attendant enthusiasm can create expectations that seem destined to drown any subsequent effort, particularly if the sophomore follow-up is a long time coming.

In 1997, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel “The God of Small Things” rocketed her to global fame, selling millions of copies, making her the first Indian woman ever to win the Booker Prize and giving her a platform from which to criticize injustice in her native country. Twenty years later, she has released her second novel, the large and labyrinthine “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”

To be clear, Roy has been far from silent these past two decades, regularly publishing collections of essays, investigative journalism and political commentary, including “The End of Imagination” and “Capitalism: A Ghost Story.”

Dedicated to “The Unconsoled” (and seemingly committed to the representation of everyone to whom such a label could conceivably apply), her return to fiction has a shaggy structure and polemical bent that might confuse and disappoint some readers. Yet its keen characterizations, ardent conscience and brilliant writing on a sentence level make the years this tale has taken to arrive somewhat understandable.

The opening single-page vignette alone — about the unintended poisoning of white-backed vultures as a side effect of the widespread use of diclofenac, aka “cow aspirin,” to accommodate India’s increasingly dairy-hungry palate — is worth the price of the book. “Not many noticed the passing of the friendly old birds,” she notes in this passage’s wise and ironic final sentences. “There was so much else to look forward to.” For better and for…

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