This review contains spoilers.
The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t.
– from The God of Small Things
Having finally exhausted the bookshelf (and lacking the funds to purchase new books) I was forced to do some re-reading. I first picked up an old Stephen King paperback, a novel I devoured on the first read and figured would be fun to revisit. A few chapters in, however, I found I was dragging myself through paragraphs, bored with the prose and the characters. I put it back on the shelf and reached instead for The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
I had read The God of Small Things twice already, and loved it just as much on the third read as I did the first two. Roy’s first and (as of 2014) only novel is not traditionally plot driven. There are no suspenseful twists, no surprising revelations; the book’s ending, in fact, is given away in the first chapter. And yet it is a novel I keep wanting to return to. It is a Great Story – a story that creates a world and characters with such depth that they seem to really live. You miss them when the book is finished, and you want to come back to them again.
The God of Small Things is set in Ayemenem, a small village in the southern Indian province of Kerala. Arundhati Roy was born in Kerala in 1961, and much of her novel seems to be drawn from her own experiences. Like the children in The God of Small Things, Roy and her brother were raised by their divorced mother, and their Grandmother really did own a pickle factory. Roy herself admits – speaking to the BBC book club in 2011 – that it is difficult to say where reality ends and fiction begins. We are made of our past, she says.
The story is largely told from the perspective of Rahel, one half of a set of fraternal (“two-egg”) twins, although the narrator is omniscient and inhabits the consciousnesses of numerous characters. In the present Rahel is 30 years old (“Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age”) and has returned to the Ayemenem house of her childhood, where she finds her brother, Estha. Most of the story, however, takes place in 1969, when the twins are 7 years old and very close (“He was” – Rahel remembers of Estha – “the one that she had known before Life began”). Estha and Rahel’s mother is Ammu, a Syrian Christian who married a Hindu (against her family’s wishes). When the marriage turned sour Ammu divorced and moved back (with her two children) into her parents’ home:
She was twenty-seven that year, and in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that, for her, life had been lived. She had had one chance. She had made a mistake. She had married the wrong man.
1969 brings with it the much anticipated arrival of the twins’ English cousin (Sophie Mol) to Kerala. At the same time Ammu becomes romantically involved with Velutha, a carpenter of the Untouchable caste. These two events inevitably intertwine, with tragic consequences.
Reviewing The God of Small Things is difficult. It is such a rich and complex novel that it is hard to know where to start. And having loved it so much I feel a responsibility to do it justice. (If you’d like to balance my opinions with a few from the opposite camp, you may want to check out this review by John Crace in The Guardian, who seems to hate The God of Small Things as much as I love it.)
If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I’m a sucker for beautiful language, and The God of Small Things is brimming with gorgeous sentences. Arundhati Roy’s love for her childhood home shows itself in the vivid descriptions in this novel – the details and sensory language she uses create a world that really lives and breathes.
In her interview with the BBC Roy describes Indian society as being very alive. India, she says, is a place where the worst thing that can happen to a book is not a bad review (after The God of Small Things was published a case was filed against Roy in India for corrupting public morality) and the best thing is not a prize. The style of The God of Small Things reflects not only its content but the context into which it was released; ever-shifting, growing, heart-beating.
Roy also told the BBC that she was not conscious of crafting the language in the book, that it came subconsciously, as – I think – all honest, really felt writing does. My only (very teeny tiny) criticism of this novel is that at times there are so many details that it is difficult to draw back and see the big picture. The God of Small Things is a true jungle of a story, which is at once wonderful and overwhelming.
The other element of Roy’s writing that I loved was the ‘kid-voice’ she has created. The children in the book are distinguished from the adults through their use of rhyme, the capitalisation of important words and phrases, by talking backwards, and running words together. Through Rahel and Estha (and sometimes Sophie Mol) we are granted access to the world of children; a perspective that is funny, unique, honest, and – at times – cruel in the way only children can get away with:
Rahel found a whole column of juicy ants. They were on their way to church. All dressed in red. They had to be killed before they got there. Squished and squashed with a stone.
“Let’s leave one alive so that it can be lonely,” Sophie Mol suggested.
Unlike the novel’s effortless language, Roy admits that when dealing with structure she needed to draw a physical image of the events to see how they fit together. The God of Small Things is anything but linear in terms of narrative. Roy wanted to create something circling; something a reader could enter anywhere and still want to read. Events in the novel are organised by memory and character, rather than time.
In many ways the structure reflects the theme of the novel. The God of Small Things deals with very tragic circumstances, yet because of the circling nature of its structure it does not end on a tragic note. Instead, the ending is full of love and beauty. In this way, the detailed style of the novel and the broader narrative interact perfectly. This is not just a novel about small things (spiders, fish, a man and a woman by a river at night), but about the way small things are connected to big things (a theme also deeply important to Virginia Woolf). The God of Small Things is packed with thousands of little details, but behind all of them is an overwhelming sense of history. Little Rahel feels her Grandfather’s disappointment resting on her own heart like a moth; the influence of India’s caste system as well as religious and societal expectations are strong; and The Love Laws (“the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much”) affect all of the characters. The God of Small Things is a novel about the inescapability of big things – of politics, history, and death. But it is also a novel about finding joy – and love – in the face of this. And this, for me, is what makes The God of Small Things a really Great Story. Its ability to remind the reader at once of the essential tragedy of life, and the beauty. It is a book that reminds us that “although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t.”
Arundhati Roy was trained as an architect and has also written screenplays. The God of Small Things – her first and only novel – won The Booker Prize in 1997. It has sold 6 million copies, and been translated into 40 languages. You can listen to Roy talk about The God of Small Things in two separate interviews with the BBC here and here.