The year is 1969. In the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt). When Chacko's English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that things can change in a day, that lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river...
Arundhati Roy burst onto the literary scene with this Booker-Prize-winning novel in 1997, which became the biggest-selling book ever written by an Indian author still living in India. She received half a million pounds as an advance, and the book was sold into eighteen different countries within two months. It’s the kind of dream run every writer longs for, yet Arundhati Roy has never published another novel.
Perhaps this novel was so deeply felt and personal to her that it was the one book of her soul, never to be repeated.
I bought it in 1997, and tried to read it then. I disliked it emphatically. I found it faux-naïf: awkward, self-conscious, disjointed. There were so many characters – ten introduced in less than five pages! And the narrative structure was kaleidoscopic, making it difficult to connect to either the characters or their story. I put it away, thinking I’d try it another time (this is my rule with books I don’t like.) So it sat on my to-be-read-one-day bookshelf for twenty years. I pulled it out a dozen times, hesitated over it, then put it back. I almost gave it to charity once. But something made me keep it.
Then, one day, determined to read some of those books I’d bought but never read, I took it down again. This time I read it swiftly and eagerly. I found the jumps about in time and point-of-view fresh and exhilarating. Her boldness and originality struck me forcibly. No-one has ever written like this before, I kept thinking. The naivety and awkwardness now seemed a perfect choice for a story told from a child’s point-of-view.
It is not an easy book to read, both because of its subject matter – the tragic consequences of violence and cruelty and small-mindedness – and because of its repetitive and disjointed narrative structure. And I felt as if Arundhati Roy set out deliberately to shock and provoke, breaking as many taboos as she could, from the Indian caste system to incest. I have read that the book was inspired by true events in Arundhati Roy’s life. I can only hope it was the setting and not the events of her life.
The God of Small Things is undeniably brilliant, innovative, and thought-provoking. I was moved and troubled by it, and found tears in my eyes at the end. And I can only applaud her virtuosity and boldness with language. A truly astonishing book.