God of Small Things: From The Critics

Posted: August 3, 2007 in Arundhati Roy, Book Review

Jennifer Howard

Arundhati Roy’s rich, humid fairy tale of a novel begins in June, when the monsoon rains send the province of Kerala, in southwestern India, into fecund frenzy: “The countryside turns an immodest green … Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads.” Behind this lush life, however, something festers. Rahel Kochamma, one of the novel’s twin protagonists, returns to her family home in the Kerali town of Ayemenem, and decay slithers out to greet her. The house walls “bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against glistening stone.”

This slithering overripeness hints at what’s really rotten in Ayemenem: the past, specifically a chain of events set in motion on “a skyblue day in December sixty-nine (the nineteen silent),” when the twins’ half-English cousin, Sophie Mol, came to visit. Two weeks later Sophie was dead, drowned in Ayemenem’s river, leaving behind a shattered family and a terrible secret. The narrative eddies along toward the secret of Sophie’s death, but ultimately it flows into the drowning depths of history. The God of Small Things is a story of forbidden, cross-caste love and what a community will do to protect the old ways. The Kochamma family business, Paradise Pickles and Preserves, is emblematic of the theme. Ayemenem is practically pickled in history. Roy, an architect and screenwriter who grew up in Kerala, capably shoulders the burdens of caste and tradition, a double weight that crushes some of her characters and warps others, but leaves none untouched.

Roy takes up classic material, but she delights in verbal innovation and stylistic tricks. She runs words together — “thunderdarkness,” “echoing stationsounds” — and plucks nouns from verbs and verbs from thin air. And she has hit on a striking way of getting at a child’s point of view (told in third person, the story unfolds more or less as young Rahel and Estha experience it). When her mother tells a rambunctious Rahel to “Stoppit,” Rahel “stoppited.” At Sophie’s funeral, a bat alights on a mourner: “the singing stopped for a ‘Whatisit?’ ‘Whathappened?’ and for a Furrywhirring and a Sariflapping.”

At times it feels as though you’ve dropped into a faux Rushdie novel, with cartwheeling corpses and talking statues. Mostly, though, Roy’s verbal exuberance is all her own, and it makes The God of Small Things a real pleasure. History’s lessons may be bitter, but Roy serves them up fresh, pungent and delicious. — Salon

Publishers Weekly
With sensuous prose, a dreamlike style infused with breathtakingly beautiful images and keen insight into human nature, Roy’s debut novel charts fresh territory in the genre of magical, prismatic literature. Set in Kerala, India, during the late 1960s when Communism rattled the age-old caste system, the story begins with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, the cousin of the novel’s protagonists, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother, Estha. In a circuitous and suspenseful narrative, Roy reveals the family tensions that led to the twins’ behavior on the fateful night that Sophie drowned. Beneath the drama of a family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history all of which come together in a slip of fate, after which a family is irreparably shattered. Roy captures the children’s candid observations but clouded understanding of adults’ complex emotional lives. Rahel notices that “at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” Plangent with a sad wisdom, the children’s view is never oversimplified, and the adult characters reveal their frailtiesand in one case, a repulsively evil powerin subtle and complex ways. While Roy’s powers of description are formidable, she sometimes succumbs to overwriting, forcing every minute detail to symbolize something bigger, and the pace of the story slows. But these lapses are few, and her powers coalesce magnificently in the book’s second half. Roy’s clarity of vision is remarkable, her voice original, her story beautifully constructed and masterfully told.

Library Journal
This “piercing study of childhood innocence lost” mirrors the growing pains of modern India. Twin sister and brother Rahel and Estha are at the center of a family in crisis and at the heart of this “moving and compactly written book.” (LJ 4/15/97)
Kirkus Reviews

A brilliantly constructed first novel that untangles an intricate web of sexual and caste conflict in a vivid style reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s early work. The major characters are Estha and Rahel, the fraternal twin son and daughter of a wealthy family living in the province of Kerala. The family’s prosperity is derived from a pickle factory and rubber estate, and their prideful Anglophilia essentially estranges them from their country’s drift toward Communism and their “inferiors’ ” hunger for independence and equality.

The events of a crucial December day in 1969—including an accidental death that may have been no accident and the violent consequences that afflict an illicit couple who have broken “the Love Law”—are the moral and narrative center around which the episodes of the novel repeatedly circle. Shifting backward and forward in time with effortless grace, Roy fashions a compelling nexus of personalities that influence the twins’ “eerie stealth” and furtive interdependence. These include their beautiful and mysteriously remote mother Ammu; her battling “Mammachi” (who runs the pickle factory) and “Pappachi” (an insufficiently renowned entomologist); their Oxford-educated Marxist Uncle Chacko and their wily “grandaunt” Baby Kochamma; and the volatile laborite “Untouchable” Velutha, whose relationship with the twins’ family will prove his undoing. Roy conveys their explosive commingling in a vigorous prose dominated by odd syntactical and verbal combinations and coinages (a bad dream experience during midday nap-time is an “aftermare”) reminiscent of Gerard Manly Hopkins’s “sprung rhythm,” incantatory repetitions, striking metaphors (Velutha is seen “standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body”) and sensuous descriptive passages (“The sky was orange, and the coconut trees were sea anemones waving their tentacles, hoping to trap and eat an unsuspecting cloud”).

In part a perfectly paced mystery story, in part an Indian Wuthering Heights: a gorgeous and seductive fever dream of a novel, and a truly spectacular debut.

Synopsis
“Dazzling…remarkable. A novel that turns out to be as subtle as it is powerful.” –The New York Times

“This outstanding novel is a banquet for all the senses we bring to reading.” –Newsweek

Winner of the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997, The God Of Small Things was a stunning debut for Arundhati Roy. Roy’s craftsmanship, highly original style, and intricate structure struck a chord with reviewers and readers alike. An international bestseller, this exquisite novel will surely be remembered — and reread — in years to come. It is a work that “makes you catch your breath, that changes the way you view life and its hidden complexities.” (Earth Times)

Set in Kerala, India, in 1969, The God Of Small Things is the story of seven-year-old twins Rahel and Estha, born of a wealthy family and literally joined at the soul. Rahel and Estha are cared for by a host of compelling characters: their beautiful mother, Ammu, who has left a violent husband; their Marxist uncle, Chacko, still pining for his English wife and daughter who left him; their prickly grandaunt, Baby Kochamma, pickling in her virginity; and the volatile Veluth, a member of the Untouchable caste. When Chacko’s ex-wife, Margaret, and lovely daughter, Sophie, unexpectedly return, the household is thrown into disarray. Tragedy strikes in the form of an accident (that may not have been accidental) and a terrifying murder.

Tremendously powerful and lushly romantic, The God Of Small Things effectively shifts between two time periods: Rahel’s present-day trip home to see her mute, haunted twin brother, and a December day 20 years before — the tumultuous day that tears the family apart. With mesmerizing language that brings to mind such authors as Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, and William Faulkner, The God Of Small Things ambitiously tackles such profound issues as family, race, and class, the dictates of history, and the laws of love. Rahel and Estha learn too soon that love and life can be lost in a millisecond.

To the Western reader, The God Of Small Things is both exotic and familiar, written in a sensual language that’s entirely fresh and invigorated by the Asian Indian influences of myth and culture.

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