Book Review: The God of Small Things


Reading Fiction is something of a mindset.  While I can peruse blogs and articles all day, to immerse myself in the fictional world of another author’s imagination is a bit more of a temporal and intellectual commitment.  So when I found myself in the Outer Banks with the outskirts of Hurricane Bertha dumping rain for hours, I had a bit of time on my hands.  By the time I could go to the beach, I was already over 100 pages into Arhundati Roy’s 1997 novel The God of Small Things.  I would devour the book before I left two days later.

The narration focuses on a pair of twins, Rahel and Estha, and vacillates in two alternate timelines: one with the twins as seven-year-old children and one as adults, now returned to the dilapidated ancestral home, now watched over by their great aunt Baby Kochamma.  Estha speaks to no one, and Rahel’s return from America elicits nothing but scorn and fear from her great Aunt.

In returning to the first timeline, we begin to see the origins of the uncomfortable homecoming.  In weaving in and out of timelines, Roy signals the shifts with tiny details, moving between timelines even within the same chapter.  Even within the timelines themselves, the narratives are not cleanly linear.  We know from the very beginning what seems to be the major event that set everything in motion: the death of Sophie Mol, Estha and Rahel’s half-English cousin.  But though Roy reveals this fact early, the narrative that explains how this came about, adding details about the preceding causes and following effects on either side, aligns every little detail with nuanced imagery.

Indeed, the volume of imagery and detail at times seems to take on the qualities of an Impressionist paintings.  At times, it seems the details are dilatory, meant only to build the ethos of a seven-year-old mind.  But later, the details acquire their own meaning, suggesting far more than the author explicitly states.  Individual sentences about the songs of birds and the humming of insects may seem dilatory until we step back to see the entire painting.

And what a glorious painting of words it is.  The lyricism is beautiful.  The characters are vibrant.  It is a testament to the author that even though we believe we know where the story is ending, we can’t wait to get there.  Indeed, Roy invokes this, claiming the best stories are the old stories, the ones we want to hear again and again.

That said, the ending is a surprise, one that I won’t give away; but if anyone chooses to read it and discuss the ending, I would love to engage you on that front.  The ending isn’t a twist that we see coming, but rather what the author chooses to emphasize.  To be fair, the more I think about the ending, the more I love the novel.

My endorsement doesn’t come without reservations.  When I recommended that Nicole read it, she asked, “Can I use it in class?”  I hesitated it.  There are parts, though not salacious nor gratuitous, can make the more prudish reader uncomfortable, one that might make me second guess teaching it in the classroom.  As an interesting contradiction, the language in these parts is so riveting that I find those parts so compelling in ways much more deeply than a cheap, voyeuristic thrill.

Otherwise, there is one thread left untied in the story.  True, much of the description is impressionistic.  However, there is one suggestion made early in the text that seems massive in the development of the story.  Along with the actual death of Sophie Mol in the narrative order, I waited to see what this meant (I don’t want to give it away, for fear of ruining your reading), only to be disappointed that it was never resolved.

Despite this, Roy’s world, set in Aymanam, in an India evolving into modernity, is a delightfully entrancing read, one that I stayed up to finish after Nicole had gone to bed the night before we left.  If you have the time and inclination to lose yourself in an imaginative, fictional world, and you feel confident in your ability to swim in deep waters, feel free to take the plunge.





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