The Golden House by Salman Rushdie – A Story of Secrets and Betrayals
11th September, 2017
The Golden House is the story of a father and three sons who begin a new life in a new country and are running away from the past. This is the latest realistic fiction by Salman Rushdie set in New York and Mumbai.
Dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional country
The Goldens appear like magic. A father and four sons – Immigrants in another country with a mission to reimagine their past and reinvent their future. And they are rich of course! They choose new names for their new life: the father chooses the name Nero, and his sons choose the names Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apulius (Apu), and Dionysius (D). The mansion is renamed The Golden House. It is one among many buildings that open into a common garden; a garden that the elite living in the adjacent buildings are allowed to use.
Rene is a Belgian film maker and a neighbour of the Goldens. Their magical appearance and mysterious past fascinates him and he sees an excellent subject for a film in the Golden family. He observes, interacts and slowly unearths the secrets of the Goldens. In this process, he himself gets entangled in the story.
The character sketches were wonderfully done, be it the mysterious and formidable Nero or the socially awkward but highly intelligent Petya or Apu with his artistic flair; or D with his confused gender identity. The woman in the story, Vasilisa, the new step mom, is scheming, manipulative and feared by the sons to be a ‘gold digger’. All the characters are secretive and closed off but they are exposed as we delve further into the plot.
More interesting is the occasional commentary of American politics like a background hum. Just like the Golden family seems to be falling down like a pack of cards, the political scene in America is on a downhill ride too and is captured in Rushdie’s unapologetic and sarcastic wit.
Bitter truths; Pleasing lies
The whole family is caught in a web of betrayals and all the members (including Rene, an outsider) have things to hide. When the lies erupt, the characters feel weakened and vulnerable. I thought the structure of the novel was interesting; alternating between the main plot and Rene’s script for his movie. There is camera zooming in, a pause and frozen faces in the novel (when it shifts to the script style of writing) which makes the whole book read like a movie. It also keeps the reader wondering where is the line between fiction and reality for the movie based on the Goldens.
A mish mash you might get lost in
The Golden House is written in a way that you might get lost in the passages; and I don’t mean that in a good way. There is an overload of information (in my notes I marked this as ‘info vomit’ but it seemed too crass to write it as such so plainly) that are unnecessary to the storyline. For example, you might read through a tiring list of film makers or read about a list of movies/songs that the character is reminded of or read a long passage about the different sights of a city that you are not familiar with, resulting in making you detached from the narrative.
At some points it almost felt as if Rushdie is either trying to show off how much information (read TV shows, films, cities, heritage etc) he knows and forced it into the main plot without there being a need for it or trying to forcibly define what ‘fine taste’ entails. So you have it all – Aadhar system, Seinfield, pop culture, Stephen Hawking’s black holes, philosophy, epics, Mumbai underworld – you name it. It isn’t that you feel bored only because you are not familiar with the different things Rushdie throws your way; Murakami for a fact is a writer who often includes songs in his novels and a reader who is not aware of the same will still be able to enjoy his books.
The first 25% of the book was dull and made me question if I actually want to finish the book. But after one fourth of the novel, the pace and style of writing dramatically picked up and I was happy I decided to continue with it. Here is an example of a portion of a passage in Chapter 6.
“No limit to the subjects he reached for and used as punching bags: the British royal family, in particular the sex lives of Princess Margaret, who used a Caribbean island as her private boudoir, and Prince Charles who wanted to be his lover’s tampon; the philosophy of spinza(he liked it); the lyrics of Bob Dylan (he recited the whole of ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of Lowlands’, as reverently as if it were a companion piece to ‘La Belle Damme sans Merci’); the Spassky-Fischer chess match (Fischer had died the year before); Islamic radicalism (he was against it)…” – You get the idea! The paragraph goes on for many more lines. Similar sounding passages dampened my interest in the beginning of the novel.
I loved the second half of the novel that went at a steady pace and then trotted into a thrilling fast read towards the end. Golden’s past was fascinating and wondrous to read about and I almost wished Rushdie had spent more time expanding the Mumbai underworld.
I loved Rushdie’s sarcasm at the present political conditions as well as his comments on new fads in the society such as actors and movie makers changing the spelling of their names in the hopes of being lucky. He does not shy away from spitting out laughable truths about Donald Trump, referenced as ‘Joker’ in the book. There is significant discussion about gender identity and confusion, the idea of gender, love and gender and so on.
Final Verdict :
I liked the novel and found it enjoyable. But I think it could have been better executed. Had this been written by a less famous writer, it would not create the same impact ; much like how The Ministry of Utmost Happiness would not have done well had it not been written by Arundhati Roy. Just like Rene, I thought the story of the Golden family would make a lovely movie – new money, betrayal, murder, lies, family ties; it has got everything that it needs for a commercial hit. If you pick the book, I warn you that the novel picks up after few initial hiccups; so keep reading.
Title : The Golden House
Author : Salman Rushdie
Publisher : Hamish Hamilton
Language : English
Pages : 368
Rating : 4/5
Disclaimer : Much thanks to Penguin India for a copy of the book and to both Flipkart and Penguin India for the ARC. All opinions are my own.
Do you enjoy reading Rushdie’s novels? Which is your favourite?