Estha and Rahel, seven-year-old twins, are growing up amidst waves of banana jam, mountains of peppercorns and scenes of political turbulence in Kerala. When their beautiful young cousin Sophie arrives, their world is shaken irrevocably. An illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional expose things that lurk unsaid in a country drifting dangerously towards unrest.
Length: 340 pages
Published: 2017 (originally 1997)
Publisher: 4th Estate
Source: World of Books
Arundhati Roy is an author I’ve wanted to read for quite a while. I have had her second book. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness sat on my shelves for a couple of years now. I’ve just never managed to get to it. So when I saw The God of Small Things on my MA summer reading list, I thought it was the perfect motivation to at least read one of her books.
As The God of Small Things won the Booker prize in 1997, I expected to enjoy the book – at the very least to understand it and take something away from it.
This book, however, let me down.
The story itself centres on twins Estha and Rahel, and their mother Ammu. Ammu is a single mother, divorced from the twins’ father, and living at home with her family. Throughout the narrative, we get to know this family and the events that have shaped them. The God of Small Things feels very much like a family history for most of the book, as substantial sections are devoted to the backstory of the family members. I didn’t actively dislike this element of the book, but the style made it difficult to connect with and care about the characters.
This lack of connection to, and caring about, the characters is what led me to feel quite bored by the story for most of my time reading it. I really struggled to pick it back up after putting it down. I could easily have DNF’d and not cared about what happened. But I pushed through as it was on my reading list though.
Roy most definitely writes well, and the book has a strong atmospheric feel that I did quite enjoy. Though I didn’t feel connected to the characters due to the omniscient style of writing, I did feel that the characters Roy fleshed the characters out well: they could easily have been real people. Considering the writing style, I think this is quite an achievement for Roy.
The thing about the writing I didn’t like was the over-use of metaphors. Metaphors can add sophistication to writing, adding just the right connotation of imagery at the right moment. And at points, Roy does achieve this in The God of Small Things. However, for most of the narrative, she overuses them. And some are quite cringe-worthy. They tripped me up while reading because the language just felt out of place.
The story does include an undercurrent of political events. I’m not sure what the political situation was in India at the time Roy was writing The God of Small Things. I think that’s what made the political elements of this book difficult for me to understand. There is talk of communism and Marxism, and certain characters do identify this way.
Roy also touches on the caste system in India, as a few of the characters are ‘untouchables’ – the lowest caste in India who are seen as polluting to the higher castes. This element of the book I did understand, and I feel like it helped with my understanding too. Reading about castes and the way people are treated because of them in a factual book is one thing, but reading about it in fiction, with the humanising effect fiction has, is another.
Towards the end, which dealt most strongly with the caste system, I started to enjoy the book more. I think this is because the focus shifted from the omniscient family narration to a more personal narration of the central characters. Roy also gives us answers to the mystery she begins earlier in the book. (A mystery that Roy seems to forget for most of the narrative.) There are some beautiful moments at the end of the book, and I really quite enjoyed the end.
I think if the rest of the book had focused on the central characters more, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so bored for most of the story. Roy seemed to get a handle on her metaphors later in the book too. Overall, it’s a shame I felt the way I did for most of the book. But I’m going to cautiously read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and hope I enjoy it a lot more than I did The God of Small Things.