Review no 162
Book 5 of my #20booksofsummer
The God of Small Things is one of those books that everyone reading this will have heard of, but I don’t suppose everyone will have read. It won the Booker Prize in 1997 and rapidly became the biggest-selling work of Indian fiction by a non-expat writer. Arundhati Roy steered clear of fiction after writing her prize-winning novel, focusing on her political writing, although a second novel was published in 2017, some 20 years after her first.
The story, set in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is concerned with the Ipe family, focusing in particular on disgraced adult daughter Ammu and her twin children. Ammu has returned to her family home in the small town of Ayemenem after divorcing her alcoholic husband, but lives miserably there, filled with “The infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber“, while her brother Chacko jokes that “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is also mine“.
A mutual attraction arises between Ammu and the lower-caste, ‘untouchable’ Velutha, a carpenter who is employed as a servant by the family, and whose father Vellya Paapen is a product of the ‘Crawling Backwards Days’. A relationship between the two is unthinkable to older members of the Ipe family. Meanwhile, Chacko, also divorced from his non-traditional British wife, satisfies his ‘men’s needs’ with women employed at his factory, Paradise Pickles and Preserves, without reproach.
The novel opens with the tragic death of a child, Chacko’s British-born daughter Sophie, who has arrived in India for a visit. But it isn’t a who-done-it. It’s a family saga of sorts, with a labyrinthine structure, which seems to seek to replicate the spiralling structure of (traumatic) memory. The novel opens at the end, really, and properly begins in the middle. Set in lush Kerala, the prose too is expansive, even overblown, and lyrical. Roy has said that it was important to her that in her novel the notion of family was anything but a place of safety, while the febrile political environment intrudes throughout, with the restrictive confines of the caste system, which determines who is allowed to love who.
“It all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem. Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes … Equally it could be argued that it actually began thousands of years ago … in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
Events in the novel are often presented from the perspective of the twins, the boy Estha and the girl Rahel, and dual, convoluted timeframes cover a period of a few days in December 1969, when the children are seven, and a later period when they are adults, again living in Kerala after a period of exile, in the early 1990s.
The prose style is arch and busy, a bit like early Zadie Smith, which I didn’t love, but Roy’s voice is nevertheless very distinctive, and the style successfully experimental. The ending when it plays out is truly devastating, though we know its inevitability almost from the start. Its counterpoint is a moving love story, which has far-reaching consequences: for a while, to Ammu, Velutha is something close to a god. The outcomes for these character’s lives, we come to understand, represent merely a small element within a context of all-pervading historical forces, while we see how the consequences of what appear to be small things can change the course of lives. I didn’t love reading this book, but I did think it worked brilliantly at what it set out to do.