The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: A review

Arundhati Roy has a new book, her second novel, out this year and much acclaimed. I want to read it, but in thinking about that book, I remembered her remarkable debut novel, The God of Small Things, which was published twenty years ago in 1997. I had read the book back then, but in recalling it today, I found that its details had blurred and I wanted to read it again. And so I did. 

It was even better the second time around. Perhaps my life experience in the last twenty years has given me a greater appreciation of the story.

Roy's luminous prose makes reading an unadulterated pleasure, even when she is describing the tragic events of this tale. The story of fraternal ("two-egg" in the language of the book) twins Esthappen and Rahel and their childhood in the state of Kerala in the southern tip of India, as they try to understand and come to terms with their fractured family and as they learn to their eternal sorrow that the events of one day can change things forever, is a story which everyone who has ever been a child should be able to relate to.

Moreover, I thought the structure which Roy gave to the story was absolutely brilliant in its conception and execution. She begins the story at its end and ends it at its beginning and, throughout, the action slips effortlessly back and forth between the present and the beginnings in 1969. 

The twins and their mother, Ammu, had returned to the family home in Ayemenem after the mother divorced her abusive drunkard husband. But because of the divorce, she is considered an outcast and she and her children are resented by the family, especially by her aunt, Baby Kochamma, a woman whose own desire for love has been thwarted.

In fact, everyone in this fraught household has been thwarted in love in one way or another. 

Ammu's brother, Chako (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, and radical Marxist), had married a woman in England but after their daughter was born, the first bloom of love faded and she left him for another man. Then, he, too, returned to Ayemenem.

Ammu's and Chako's mother, Mammachi, is a widow, now blind, who was regularly beaten by her husband with a brass pot when he was alive.

In this atmosphere of frustrated desires, Ammu must try to raise her children and give them happy lives.

The caste system is still very much a part of society in India in 1969 and it pollutes relations at every level. The twins have a friend, teacher, and protector in Velutha, a member of the Untouchable caste. He is someone who grew up with their mother. The two children love him by day, but, in secret, their lonely mother loves him at night. It is, of course, a forbidden love and one that can only end in grief.

The catalyst for the tragedy to come is the Christmas visit to the home by Chako's ex-wife, Margaret, and his beloved daughter, Sophie. It's impossible to further describe the plot without spoilers. Suffice to say that no one escapes unchanged. 

Roy loads her narrative with foreshadowing so that one feels a constant sense of trepidation and anxiety. When the worst happens, it is hardly a surprise and yet the reader is still devastated. 

What strikes me as most tragic is not so much the suffering of these flawed characters, but the fact that such suffering is so commonplace. We are reading of the effects of the caste system in India in the 1960s; it might just as easily be about racism, misogyny, xenophobia in America today. Human nature has not improved in the last fifty years. In that regard, sadly, Roy's story stands up very well to the passage of time.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

  

Comments

  1. Outstanding review of what seems a brilliant book! I would love to read this one.

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    Replies
    1. It is a brilliant book. One can certainly understand the awards and acclaim that it received back in the day and the story still seems very current.

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  2. You have convinced me to read this one again!

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    Replies
    1. I found it even more meaningful the second time around. Perhaps you will, too.

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  3. I tried but failed to read this some time ago - maybe I'll give it another go.
    Cheers

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    Replies
    1. I will readily concede that it is not the easiest book to read, but the writing is so exquisite it is worth the effort.

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