82 – ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy

Books. The more of them you read, the more links you see between them. Presumably, if you manage to read all of them, you will become omniscient and be able to tease out the strands linking every piece of writing in creation to every other scrap of text. At least, that’s what I imagine having a PhD in English Literature to be like.

The reason for this random short aside is that this is the third book I’ve read recently where important times in someone’s life are contrasted, and the second in a row where the author has decided to play with time, dancing back and forth across the years like a yo-yo in a tutu (now there’s an image). However, where ‘The President’s Last Love’ used a fairly straightforward approach to this time-travel nonsense, keeping the stories fairly untangled and linear (well, as linear as its possible to get when you’re telling three stories at once), ‘The God of Small Things’ switches between two main time periods but jumps back and forth repeatedly during the first, revealing, teasing, concealing, hinting. Oh, and it’s bloody brilliant…

A bold statement, perhaps, and one which should be backed up by a postgraduate-level analysis of the themes and motifs, but, seeing as I just scraped a B for GCSE English Literature in the fifth form (simpler days – more football, less Shakespeare), that’s not going to happen. In fact, as discussing the plot in any great depth would destroy the pleasure you would get from reading the novel, I’m not going to go too deeply into that either. So, as the majority of you start muttering and heading for the exit, what exactly am I going to talk about? Wait, I’ll think of something.

‘The God of Small Things’ takes place at two different times in a small, rural Indian village, before and after a devastating event which destroys the family at the centre of the story. It deals with several important themes, but the main one is love (in particular who should and can be loved, and the effect it has on those around you). Choices made contrary to what Roy describes as the ‘Love Laws’ not only lead the participants into deep water, but also cause ripples which reverberate throughout th neighbourhood and overthrow the smooth sailing of everyday family life. Four relationships of differing types – three consummated, one platonic (and longer lasting)- test these rules about who can love and be loved and the consequences for breaking them. As you may have gathered, there aren’t a lot of happy endings, and yet the ending is happy. It does make sense.

The consequences of the protagonists’ action are not limited to the human participants of the story. One of the compelling features of the book is the way the sprawling house owned by the Kochamma family sinks from its bustling status into decrepitude and decay. The lack of hope in the family is transferred to the walls it lives in; dust piles up, insects invade and take over. The garden, freed from the strictures of its tenders, reverts to wild jungle, overgrowing paths and even claiming a car as its own.

At the same time, outside influences start to creep into traditional life, displacing local customs and subtly altering the villagers’ way of life. The arrival of satellite television accelerates the decline of the household as the shattered old women abandon reality for reality TV. The travelling Kathakali dancers, forced to perform bastardised twenty-minute shows of six-hour classics for an ignorant, uncaring tourist audience, seek solace in private performances away from the visitors, wailing and twirling their way through the dark hours in front of whoever happens to be around (a story which reminded me of what happened in ‘Dirty Dancing’ – see, everything is linked to everything else…).

However, in lieu of actually discussing the plot, I’d like to look at another feature of both this book and the other Indian novels I’ve read this year, namely the language and the way it is manipulated. Language is intrinsically linked to culture and mentality, and it seems that Indian writers are able to use English in a very different way to that of ‘native speakers’. Roy has written poetry, and the way she approaches her writing can be very poetical. Rahel and Estha, the child (and, later, adult) protagonists, are given titles with Capital Letters, Elvis the Pelvis, Ambassador Stick Insect, names which run through the novel, at times humorous, at others sad, juxtaposed with heart-rending events in their lives. She also captures the way children speak and understand their environment, running words together and breaking them up incorrectly (the Bar Nowl living in the pickling shed) and seizing upon misspellings and repeating them throughout, often to great effect. While this may not seem unique to Indian writers, I believe that writing in what is a second language forces Indian writers to think more about what they write, and the first-language influences they have behind them contribute to creating a rich, unique variety of English, sometimes silly, sometimes beautiful.

Well, I know I haven’t given you much to go on, but (as you may have seen from the cover above) ‘The God of Small Things’ was the winner of the 1997 Booker Prize, so I’m obviously not alone in finding it a pleasant read. There’s just one thing which annoys me about this book, and its author, and that’s the fact that Roy hasn’t written a novel since, preferring to write essays and works of non-fiction (is it just me, or is that incredibly selfish?). Of course, one way of looking at that is that there’s no point trying again if you get it right first time out, and that is exactly what she did with this book. Those of you out there in the blogosphere who haven’t read this novel should seriously think about adding it to your list for Father Christmas. It is very, very good.

8 thoughts on “82 – ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy

  1. I was actually quite disappointed by The God of Small Things not that I can actually remember why now; I think that it had been so built up for me that I found it paled in comparison to the hype. Very interesting point about the language.

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  2. Paperback Reader – I probably approached it from the other extreme. I read it a fair few years back and liked it, but I wasn't expecting it to be so good this time. Despite what I said about the plot in my post, I think that knowing what will happen only adds to the emotions invoked by the writer (and allows you to concentrate more on the writing – which I loved!).P.S. Now I feel really guilty for not commenting on your posts more often 😉 I only really comment when I have something to add, and that is not very often when 23 people have already had their say!Claire – About time too! That's very Stone Roses-esque of her (or maybe E.M. Forster-esque – see my review of 'A Passage to India' for an explanation…).

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  3. Don't feel guilty! I don't comment just for reciprocity but when I'm interested in the post. I think I will, like you, give The God of Small Things a reread at some point.

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  4. It's definitely worth reading, Diane. I've started to get interested in Indian literature this year, and though I've only read about four books so far, on looking at a map, I've discovered that they were set in different corners of the country!

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  5. Oh how I loved this book–one of my favorites. I adored her writing and this never fails to make a lump in my throat…sometimes I'll read a book which draws me in and I can't decided whether I am horrified or I love it (Fall on Your Knees), but when I find myself thinking about it over and over again–even a year or two later, it must be worthy. I've read God of Small Things 3 or 4 times and always discover something new. A very rich book…

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