Review of Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Salman Rushdie is a significant figure in modern writing, and I recently read his Joseph Anton: A Memoir (my review). In it he mentions the conception and the development of Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Amazon affiliate link), and how it related to the very real issues in his life at the time he wrote it.

As an English teacher I focused heavily on young adult literature, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories is aimed at younger audiences than I typically worked with, but that doesn’t mean that it is devoid of merit.

Where Rushdie gets things right is in having an ironclad story concept and premise. This is a book you can read to kids, because the surface-level action is top-notch and flows smoothly, the wordplay introduces new vocabulary while also adding comic twists on characters, and the deeper subtext is great for discussion and bears deeper themes.

To describe this book in one word, I would say that it is mythological.

It’s set in a world inspired by Rushdie’s Indian Muslim heritage, with a strong helping of literary references beyond that. It’s exotic without being needlessly so, and that helps contribute to an overall spirit of whimsy and discovery.

There are some darker themes and elements: there’s allusions to Rushdie’s life hiding from a fatwa calling for his assassination, but only in a very veiled and indirect form as part of Rashid’s troubles with his storytelling. A central conflict between light and darkness, which is resolved by both sides coming together in harmony, could be thematically scary. The protagonist’s mother leaves his father for another man at the start of the story.

With this said, none of the content in the book is gratuitous. It all takes place in a larger narrative, and its goal is to raise and answer questions, not just expose children to ideas without giving them the foundation from which to deal with a complex world.

Of course, as someone familiar with Rushdie, it’s clear that these are all taken from events in his own life. He handles them respectfully, without claiming to have perfect knowledge. The bond between Rashid and Haroun that develops over the course of the story is touching, and delves deep into the nature of fatherhood. Rushdie’s life as a condemned writer shows through the cracks as well.

It’s worth noting that the epic battle between good and evil is presented in a way that is very deliberately pro-freedom. Rushdie doesn’t condemn his opponents as single-faceted villains, and they’re given as much complexity as is possible in such a work, but he makes clear why they’re the villains and why it is necessary that people have the freedom to speak and to tell stories.

Reading the book as someone interested in Rushdie’s life and evaluating it for its use in the classroom or teaching, I found it quite enjoyable nonetheless on entertainment merits. Rushdie has a very clear and compelling style, and while he dresses it up in a fanciful, almost Seussian, manner for the sake of being amusing, he does so with a lyricism and authenticity that is infectious.

There were quite a few points where I had to just stop and guffaw at something that had been said. Rushdie makes sure that there aren’t obtuse things that only make sense to adults (and the book is free of crass double meanings), but there are definitely parts that are absurdly humorous or deeply profound that only more mature readers can fully appreciate.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a fantastic book, and one I look forward to reading with children. It’s tremendous for its storytelling, sublime in its language, lofty in its message, and meaningful to its core. There’s a few positively excellent bedtime stories in here, and beneath them lie deep depths of wisdom and artistic expression.

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