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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Ground beneath her Feet

by
Salman Rushdie


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Ground beneath her Feet



Title: The Ground beneath her Feet
Author: Salman Rushdie
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 575 pages
Availability: The Ground beneath her Feet - US
The Ground beneath her Feet - UK
The Ground beneath her Feet - Canada
The Ground beneath her Feet - India
La terre sous ses pieds - France
Der Boden unter ihren Füßen - Deutschland
La terra sotto i suoi piedi - Italia
El suelo bajo sus pies - España
  • The estimable Raul Ruiz has reportedly been signed to direct the film version. However, we cringe at the thought of the soundtrack.

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Our Assessment:

B- : Rushdie's language frequently shines, his story does not in this overblown epic

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph B 5/4/1999 Maggie Gee
Daily Telegraph A 12/4/1999 Caroline Moore
The Economist B- 15/3/1999 .
Entertainment Weekly A- 14/4/1999 Troy Patterson
Esquire B 5/1999 Sven Birkerts
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 3/7/1999 .
The Guardian A 14/4/1999 James Wood
The Independent B+ 11/4/1999 Malcolm Bradbury
The LA Times B- 2/5/1999 Jonathan Levi
Literary Review A+ 4/1999 Alastair Niven
The Nation A 10/5/1999 John Leonard
National Review C+ 17/5/1999 James Gardner
The New Republic B- 26/4/1999 James Wood
New Statesman D 9/4/1999 Pankaj Mishra
Newsweek A 19/4/1999 Carla Power
The NY Observer B 19/4/1999 D.T.Max
The NY Rev. of Books B- 6/5/1999 Tim Parks
The NY Times C 13/4/1999 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 18/4/1999 Michael Wood
The Observer . 30/1/2000 Stephanie Merritt
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A+ Fall/1999 Robert L. McLaughlin
The Spectator B- 10/4/1999 David Caute
The Sunday Times C- 4/4/1999 Peter Kemp
Time B- 26/4/1999 Paul Gray
Time - Asia B 24/5/1999 Nisid Hajari
Time Out A- 14/4/1999 Mark Sanderson
The Times A- 1/4/1999 Russell Celyn Jones
The Village Voice B 21/4/1999 Jonathan Lethem
Die Welt . 17/4/1999 Joachim Scholl
Die Zeit . (16/1999) Elke Schmitter
  Yes, it is the same James Wood, with two very similar reviews. But the way we read them one was far more critical than the other.

  Review Consensus:

  Everyone grants that Rushdie displays some linguistic flair, pretty much everyone agrees the characters and characterization is stunningly flat, otherwise opinion is sharply divided. Some see the wild, inventive ride as brilliant, others just as one big mess.


  From the Reviews:
  • "In the hands of a master this balloon-like ascent into the realms of the imagination is uniquely exhilarating; and Salman Rushdie once more proves his mastery." - Caroline Moore , Daily Telegraph

  • "We can admire Mr Rushdie's brilliance, but the human element of the Ormus-Vina story often gets lost beneath it." - The Economist

  • "Rushdie's muse is still singing, and the effect is out of this world." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Buoyant, bonhomous, punning, this novel imparts a creative joy, the most generous in such free pleasure since Midnight's Children. I suspect that it will deservedly become Rushdie's most enjoyed book." - James Wood, The Guardian

  • "(I)t's the narrative embellishment and curlicue we are likely to remember. It remains a wonderful adventure with new pop material, just as Rushdie remains one of our very best writers. But where The Moor's Last Sigh was a triumph, this book is a pyrotechnic pleasure." - Malcolm Bradbury, The Independent

  • "(E)bullient, versatile and riveting. Rushdie may have written novels that are politically sharper, and to some extent we have become used to his cleverness, but he has written nothing which bounces along with such sustained brio. (...) I expect it to be regarded as one of the major novels of the decade." - Alstair Niven, Literary Review

  • "Even if the grand strategy of The Ground beneath Her Feet is, to be frank, dull and uninspired, Rushdie is one of the very best writers we have, as is clear even in a novel as flawed as this one." - James Gardner, National Review

  • "Rushdie, to be fair, does achieve life. He achieves it not in his cartoonish and allegorical characters, but in his language, which is innocently alive, and which he awards to all of his characters, so that they begin to share some of the vitalism of their author." - James Wood, The New Republic

  • "With its banal obsessions and empty bombast, its pseudocharacters and non-events, its fundamental shapelessness and incoherence, The Ground Beneath Her Feet does little more than echo the white noise of the modern world. In doing so, it not only ceases to be literature but invites scrutiny as an alarming new kind of anti-literature." - Pankaj Mishra, New Statesman

  • "(Y)ou forgive Rushdie's showy puns and tricksy history, for the book's mythic scope, epic stretch and huge intelligence." - Carla Power, Newsweek

  • "(I)nstead of finding a suggestive and potentially convincing structure in myth, the reader begins to suspect only fuzzy thinking and overkill. It may be that the problem of establishing the characters' identities is more Rushdie's than theirs." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "Despite Mr. Rushdie's myriad talents as a writer, the resulting novel is a decidedly disappointing performance: a handful of dazzling set pieces, bundled together with long-winded digressions, tiresome soliloquizing about love and death and art, and cliched descriptions of the rock-and-roll business worthy of Jackie Collins." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Rushdie's writing here is as vibrant and satisfying as ever, and if his story sometimes meanders on its long journey, the sights it takes in along the way are worth the detour." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer

  • "But, true to his propensity for extreme ups and downs, his new novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet, constitutes a steep literary downturn. (...) since Ormus is merely an allegorical appliance assembled from symbolic bits and pieces, and Vina (created by fictional spare-part surgery from assorted rock divas, with some borrowings from the Diana cult) is never more than a cliché, in leather pants and gold-sequinned bustier, their "strangely obstructed love" is far from absorbing." - Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times

  • "When fictionalized versions of Rudolf Nureyev and Andy Warhol start popping up, an inspired fiction dwindles toward gossip." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "Rushdie turns our century of celebrity and atrocity inside out. He makes you see the world in a new light." - Mark Sanderson, Time Out

  • "(U)ltimately, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a triumphant hymn to the transforming power of love, boldly asserting that fate is only a fiction and that you can sometimes strengthen history by speculating on its alternative outcome." - Russell Celyn Jones , The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Former adman unextraordinaire, pitchman cum copywriter, actor come author Salman, martyr without a cause, is a modern pop figure in the modern pop world. He is of course not the first literary author to achieve pop status -- there's one every few decades -- and he has not even come close to Byronic iconic status. A wannabe thespian Rushdie was thrust onto the too-large world stage by the ridiculous and contemptible fatwa that hangs like a halo over his head. He's carried the burden fairly well, but it's made life tough and it makes it difficult to regard his books in any objective light. The books themselves, read or not, became totemic, and that's not a good way to look at literature (or what claims or hopes to be literature). The dismal sales figures of The Ground beneath her Feet, which barely cracked an American bestseller list, suggest that Rushdie's pop stardom is no longer in the ascendant. (In the US even the largely unread Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon made a more impressive sales showing last year.) So can we expect to see Rushdie on a VH1 episode of Where are they now ? anytime soon ? Wethinks that the world has tired of what has now become a weakened death threat (however much it should still be condemned) and Rushdie's reputation stands and falls on his books. Popular that won't make him, even when, as here, he (supposedly) writes about the pop world.
       The authorial persona Rushdie most resembles ? Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who once sold out stadiums and is now reduced to writing books with titles such as Don't Die before you're Dead just to prove that he didn't. (It's actually not a bad book, but that is beside the point in a post-modernist, post-communist pop world.) Rushdie is backing into a similar niche, and this unremarkable book, The Ground beneath her Feet, will not put him back center stage -- even if there is a cover song to go with it.
       It is an odd book Rushdie presents us with. It is a typical sweeping Rushdie saga as lives are followed from near beginning to near end (or end, or after). A multitude of lives intertwine and go their separate ways and cross paths. East meets West, and along the way there are: miracles, natural (and unnatural) disasters, twins, corrupt and larger than life politicians, myth-laden stories, clever wordplay, fitting comeuppances, biting comments on India, England, America. Sound familiar ? Sure, it is a different set of characters, but we have heard much of it before.
       The book is, sort of, the story of star-crossed lovers and musical genii Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama. It is narrated by the photographer Rai (the pseudonym of Umeed Merchant), who has known them both since he was a child. It's an odd choice to have this character, who loves Vina too (and also becomes her lover), tell the tale, for a variety of reasons. And Rushdie puts a lot on his shoulders. "Call me Ishmael" he actually has poor Rai say at one point. It takes a lot of gumption to have a narrator say that in a novel, and it takes a lot to pull it off. Rushdie never lacks gumption (good for him), but here he does not pull it off.
       Rai is especially annoying at the beginning, when he is constantly telling us that he does not want to get ahead of himself (while dropping what are presumably meant to be tantalizing hints and suggestions). The story also does not center around him, which strains the narrative at times (especially when he has to describe scenes where he is not present), and more significantly he is not particularly interesting for most of the book, only coming into his own towards the end.
       Vina and Ormus -- the main characters -- are two supremely talented musicians. Eventually they will form the band to end all bands, VTO, but Rushdie does not waste much of his time on actually describing their pop stardom (though it is one of the better sections of the book). Way too much time is spent explaining how they became VTO, from earliest childhood on. They fell in love when Vina was a too-young twelve, Ormus vowing not to touch her until she was sixteen. Very romantic -- but the wait is more than a bit wearing on the reader.
       Both their histories and their families are related as Rushdie gives us the truly big picture. Some of these stories -- of what made them what they became -- are entertaining, but most of it seems like Rushdie filling space. Too little really seems relevant.
       Even when the lovers find each other again their passion is ... peculiar, as there is again a protracted period of untouchability. Rushdie does a lot of the isolation bits well, but he is not particularly good with the love and romance throughout the book -- only surprising us at the end, when Rai finds love.
       What Rushdie does better is paint his broad canvas of politics and society, even doing okay with the history of pop music as he presents it. The world of this novel is not exactly our world. It is similar, but not an exact duplicate. By and large historical events and personages remain the same, but there are differences. Some famous names have been changed, others not (an odd, though sometimes successful twist). Rushdie's jabs at India and England and America frequently amuse. His protracted pushing together of East and West and his harping on the differences and similarities and the melding of the two (so easily shown with music and its many melding influences) goes considerably too far to be truly effective, but his Anglo-Indian background lends an air of credibility and there are a few scenes in India and Britain which are spot on.
       (There is also an "otherworld", which Ormus, in particular, is confronted with -- a theme Rushdie presents well.)
       Shuddering under its own weight the book also shudders with earthquakes, and Vina is eventually literally swallowed up by the earth. Some of the earthquake-phenomena is well-done -- Rushdie uses it well as an underlying theme for his book and we particularly liked small details such as that the fault lines often ran neatly along national borders (some of Rushdie's own invention) -- but, as usual, he goes unconvincingly overboard, undermining more than just the foundations of the book. The near-deification of Vina does not wholly convince, and neither does her reappearance in younger guise (though Rushdie does some nice things with that character).
       There are many incidental stories that impress, but Rushdie does not manage to seamlessly string them together as part of this bigger narrative. For the longest time Rai is an unconvincing photographer, Rushdie practically never using any of the possibilities Rai's photographic eye and point of view might offer -- until he finally does something with it as the book nears its close. Earlier stories -- such as Rai's big photographic break -- are good, but Rushdie does not do quite enough with it either. "Photography is my way of understanding the world," Rai explains to us -- but Rushdie rarely frames his narrative in a form that reflects this. That confuses us. We are used to unreliable narrators, but this is a particularly bizarre unreliability which we do not know what to do with.
       Much of the writing is quite good. Rushdie has a flair for expression, and he often gets the pop-tone right. Surprisingly he goes in for the sententious sentence frequently here, a sentence or two in a separate paragraph at the end of a section. Looks pretty amateurish to us, and after a while the impact is ... less, if not outright laughable.
       The writing is fairly uneven. Certainly there is simply too much of it. There are sections which are marvelous, a cascade of thought and expression that moves and impresses. But much of the commentary is too reminiscent of pop tune lyrics -- superficially appealing, but without substance. There is far too much to wade through to get at the good stuff.
       Rushdie does have a couple of very fine riffs. The notion of an otherworld is done well throughout: at one point he suggests: "A road no longer goes where it went yesterday (.....) Mountains rise and fall. Well-known books acquire different endings." Not a novel idea, but his linguistic flourishes embellish the concept. Though perhaps it hits too close to home when he writes: "Art is a hoax. Style is substance." Suddenly we wonder: otherworld or Rushdie's world ? Possibly there is no difference, but for our money we want more substance than mere style, even where the style is a Rushdie's stylings.
       A curious failing is Rushdie's attempts at America. "India, it's gone for all of us," Rai says. "I'll take Manhattan." And much of the book is about that Americanization -- American culture taking over the world, though marvelously international in what initially makes it "American". Fair enough and fine, but how little Rushdie knows America. Graduating from high school Rushdie sends his Vina-reincarnate, Mira, to college -- to "Columbia University's School of Journalism", a graduate school (i.e. a school to which one can only gain admission upon completion of college). Vina is also described as a basketball fan -- she "knew her Kareem and Bird" -- which sounds almost convincing. But Rushdie writes: "Vina also liked to watch sports, especially hoop". It's hoops, plural, and anything else sounds ridiculous. (A great deal of the fault in both these instances lies with Rushdie's publisher, Henry Holt, who apparently spent so many millions on the rights for the book that they could not hire an editor to read the manuscript and copy edit it. Or maybe Rushdie is so intimidating a figure that they did not dare change a word of the master's text, even where he makes a patent error.)
       The mistakes are small, but they undermine Rai/Rushdie's claims. He is not the voice of America -- a crushing blow to Rushdie, master word-player, who likes to show (and show off) his command of idiom and pun, multi- and supra-national. Maybe, in fact, we suddenly think, he is as provincial as the rest of us.

       There is some decent thought behind this novel. "Disorientation is loss of the East," Rushdie suggests. But he also dares think: "Suppose that it's only when you dare let go that your real life begins ?" It hits close to home: in part Rushdie is freeing himself of India with this book. One is reminded that the quote which provided the title for E.M.Forster's book speaks of "a passage to more than India", and Rushdie's release is also from more than India. It is regrettable that he has such a fill of small ideas that he insists on padding his book with, or that he lacks the discipline either to properly integrate them or radically cut them back. It dilutes the book, and it makes it far less of a pleasure to read.
       The Moor's Last Sigh, a book that races along at an even faster pace, leaving the reader practically breathless, did not try to do as much and turned out much more successful (and far more entertaining, though it was also not completely satisfying). Rushdie's more focussed reckoning with India, Midnight's Children, and his best book, his reckoning with Pakistan, Shame, (which transcends its national subject), though less generous than The Ground beneath her Feet are far better literature and far better reads.
       Rushdie is a man of many talents. He apparently does not always know what to do with them. The Ground beneath her Feet displays his talents, but it also points a glaring spotlight on his weaknesses (verbosity, pomposity, lack of focus, to name just a few). We found it an ultimately unsatisfying read -- the memorable passages are good, but there's a lot to wade through to get there. We usually don't mind length in a book, but this certainly felt like a long read. We found it Rushdie's least successful novel since Grimus. (Remember Grimus ?)

       There are the usual inside jokes and subtle references throughout the book -- the most obvious, in case you missed it: the book opens: "On St. Valentine's Day, 1989, the last day of her life," and describes Vina just before she gets swallowed up by the earth. (Narrator Rai then turns back time and gives us all the background leading up to that day -- and eventually beyond it.) February 14, 1989, was, of course, also the day the infamous fatwa was issued.

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Links:

The Ground beneath her Feet:
  • Picador publicity page
  • Vintage publicity page
  • Salman Rushdie interview with Salon, heavy on The Ground beneath her Feet
  • Interview at Boston Phoenix
Reviews: Salman Rushdie: Other books by Salman Rushdie under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Bombay-born Ahmed Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) went to school at Rugby and then Cambridge. He worked in advertising before turning to writing full time. Winner of the Booker Prize (for Midnight's Children), he has written a number of international bestsellers and several works of non-fiction. In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa, sentencing Rushdie to death for alleged blasphemy.

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