‘They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. […] It was a time when the unthinkable became thinkable and the impossible really happened.’
Every once in a while, you’ll read a book that stuns you, that really moves you, that stays in your thoughts and emotions long after you’ve closed the cover for the final time. I had this experience with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. This is a book that is like no other; it is powerful, subtle and moving. It has become my current favourite book, and that’s no mean feat as there are a few steady contenders that have been jostling for first place ever since I could read.
The God of Small Things centres on Ayemenem, India, with the temporal setting flashing between 1969 and 1993; between the childhood and adulthood of its main characters. Estha and Rahel Ipe are ‘two-egg twins’ (non-identical twins) who are born into a loveless, abusive marriage which is soon ended by their young mother, Ammu. They live in Ayemenem with their maternal grandmother, Mammachi, their Uncle Chacko and their mother’s bitter aunt, Baby Kochamma. Ammu’s family are extremely resentful of her spontaneous, brief marriage to the twins’ father, a man from Calcutta who turned out to be a vicious alcoholic, and feel that she has tarred the family name and influence. They treat Ammu and the twins with bitterness verging on disgust, and, apart from a few snippy comments and criticisms, tend to leave the three of them to their own devices. Ammu is young and frustrated; her marriage did not work out and she has found herself back at her childhood home with the shadow of divorce and disappointment hanging over her, and burdened by motherhood to precocious and confident seven-year-old twins. She longs for freedom, both literally and romantically, and spends her days fluctuating between intense moods, varying highs and lows. Mammachi, Baby Kochamma and Chacko oversee the family business, making pickles and jams, and berate the twins for their constant distraction. This unconventional family provide the kind of unstable upbringing that is bound to influence a pair of happy-go-lucky but highly intuitive twins, and the tensions between the older generations lay the foundations for a series of traumatic events that change the lives of Estha and Rahel forever. We meet the young twins as they are preparing for the arrival of their idolised cousin Sophie Mol, Chacko’s estranged daughter who lives with her mother in England; and it is this emotionally fraught few days that become the catalyst for life spiralling out of control for all involved.
This novel won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, which is no mean feat, particularly for a debut author. Arundhati Roy’s style is uniquely vibrant and engaging; the natural settings of Indian cities and countryside are so vivid and tactile that it’s possible to glimpse the River Meenachil as it flows past the Ipe household, catch the scent of ripe fruit in the pickle factory, feel the oppressive, dense heat of summer in Ayemenem. Her characters are equally as animated – each individual personality is carefully crafted, their motivations both logical and tangled in emotion. Some characters may appear to have only a fleeting place in the novel, but are actually pivotal – futures are intertwined, irrevocably connected. Roy’s language is rich and her expression of emotion has depth, packing a punch at times, profound at others. She is a master of creating mood; the novel is heavy with foreboding from the first line.
Roy’s complex novel depicts life in India in intense detail. She weaves themes of politics, caste and status, gender, race, sexuality and love into the everyday actions of an atypical family, and into the lives of unblemished and innocent children. The novel is largely ‘told’ through the young eyes of Estha and Rahel, and is both childlike and perceptive, innocent and wise. Although infused with the surreal and distorted view of young children, there is something so stark and poignant about their narrative voice. The complexities of love are laid bare – love comes in many forms in the novel; it is unrequited, unwanted, bitter, desired, doomed, forbidden and carried out in moments of stolen pleasure. History is always hanging over the characters, dictating how things should be and delivering judgement when the strict rules of caste and society are broken. Familial standing within the community has a higher power in this novel – Ammu betrays her family in more ways than one, driven by love and a desire for freedom. Estha and Rahel are bewildered by the treatment their light-skinned cousin, Sophie Mol receives – she is worshipped by the family while the twins are side-lined, and this sets off a burgeoning understanding of the power of lightness, of white skin, and the authority it allows over blackness, which represents a darkness of the soul and of the intentions: ‘Littleangels were beach-colored and wore bell-bottoms. Littledemons were mudbrown…’
The temporal narrative has the function of creating tension and delaying the revelation of the events that have led to Rahel and Estha’s current situation, aged 31. Both have returned to Ayemenem after following paths that were not their intended routes through life. Even though life has changed and moved on, the past still hangs over the twins, in the form of the overbearing Baby Kochamma and the silence that weighs heavy on Estha. The twins were innocents embroiled in a dark series of events, and Roy examines whether, as adults, they are doomed to continually play out the transgressions of their parents and grandparents. These two-egg twins are joined together interminably, fated to be torn apart but connected in ways that can never be understood by anyone other than themselves. Their viewpoint is one of nostalgia tinged with tragedy, as they return both physically and emotionally to the place where their lives changed forever.
The God of Small Things is a stunning novel. It holds a fundamental place in contemporary literature; it is necessary, important, and it must be read. Its message is always relevant – life is fleeting and our paths can be significantly altered in the course of one day, or by one seemingly innocent action.