The God of Small Things is the debut novel of Indian writer Arundhati Roy. Completed in 1996, the book took four years to write and won the Booker Prize in 1997.
Set in Kerala, India during the late 1960s where Communism, religion and the caste-system ruled people’s hearts, the story begins with the funeral of young Sophie Mol – the cousin of our two protagonists, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother, Estha. We are introduced to the loneliness of their mother, Ammu, who fled an abusive marriage, returning to an unwelcome town to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi. There’s uncle Chacko, a Rhodes scholar with his reading-aloud voice and words of wisdom, Baby Kochamma, enemy and grandaunt to the twins and Velutha, whose caste is plagued with tragedy from the start, the Untouchable beloved by Ammu and the twins.
‘It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for much longer than the memory of the life that it is purloined,’ the narrator muses. In a narrative that slips seamlessly between time and space Roy slowly unravels the web of stories behind the night of Sophie’s death drowned beneath a background of local politics, social taboos and the wave of history. The stories move from the twins’ childhood in 1969 – where reality blurs with the plots of A Tale of Two Cities and Macbeth, and where people read backwards and sunglasses makes the world angry-coloured – to their present as adults, where Rahel returns home 23 years after the tragic events that separated her from Estha, the present where one is Empty and another Quiet. You wonder how the words that used to mirror innocence and child-like curiosity faded, disappeared and are now as empty and hollow as the emptiness in Rahel’s heart, the silence in Estha’s voice.
With a whimsical, almost dreamlike lyrical prose, Roy captures the children’s candid observations imbued with sad wisdom, juxtaposed by the adult’s complexity and frailties in subtle ways. The shift between time and place leaves you aching with desperation to know more, waiting anxiously for the story to unfold. The sense of tragedy plagues the words and sentences of early chapters, and Roy gives snippets, a mere glimpse at the keyhole of a door that hides a sad story. We’re drawn in by the innocent way in which the twins see the world, full of wonder and awe and magic – only to walk into the hollow cave submerged by silence and a familiar smell, ‘Sicksweet. Like old roses on a breeze.’
Past and present blend together the way you sometimes get lost in thoughts and memory and you read on in dread as the past slowly unravels, revealing roads crossed and words spoken that led to this very moment – some that began way before our two protagonists were even born. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things will lead you to a maze of narratives and a web of characters filled with tragedy, beautiful imagery and innocent little wisdoms – the funny thing is, you willingly follow.
‘The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again… In great stories you know who lives, who dies who finds love who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again,’ Roy writes, and The God of Small Things is surely one of the books you will want to read again.
About the reviewer
Lerah Mae Barcenilla is a nineteen year old who has an unhealthy obsession with books, coffee, mythology, cherry blossoms and post-it notes. She is currently a second year English student at the University of Leicester.