Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things had been on my to be read list forever, and finally (#twomumsbuddyread) Anna’s picking up this book and inviting me for a read-along proved to be one of the very few literary highlights of last year. No, it wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, or even the best book of 2017. In fact, at the end I had way too many things to hold against it. But it was so exquisitely written that I could forget and forgive all its flaws. And it’s a huge thing, because so far I’ve never been able to separate the story, the morals and the style in my final judgement of a book.
At first, let’s have a look at the plot briefly, which is no secret at all. Actually the author gives it away almost entirely in the beginning, even if the reader needs some time to realise it. The book begins where the story ends: with a funeral of a little girl, Sophie Mol, who becomes a victim of a row of unfortunate events, family tensions and a doomed-from-the-start kind of love. Or maybe even loves; loves where “the Love Laws” have been broken, and which result in a high price that even the upcoming generations need to pay.
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. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly. It was a time when uncles became fathers, mothers lovers, and cousins died and had funerals. It was a time when the unthinkable became thinkable and the impossible really happened.
The prose shifts backward and forward in time: it fuses past, present and future; it melts together sins and consequences. It reveals slowly and elaborately the characters and their secrets, their parts in the building-up of the fateful night, as well as the tragedy’s lingering effect on them. The book’s structure makes it a truly unique reading experience. Being exposed to the end upfront, to the “Big Things” if you like, makes the reader reconsider what’s really important about a story. As the author puts it herself:
(…) the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.
And without a doubt, The God of Small Things is a Great Story, where you find the joy and the heartache in the “little things” all over again. Your attention is drawn to the experiences and the feelings of people involved rather than the events themselves, and you always find a new layer that you can peel off. Sometimes I just wanted to keep rereading full chapters to take it all in, to savour all the bittersweet flavours of the story.
The other thing that the Goddess of Little Things sustains your attention and keeps sending you back to the beginning of the chapters with, is the playful and luscious language. The text overflows with striking metaphors, witty wordplays and inside jokes as well as unexpected elaborations. Every word on every page is just a pure joy to read. It’s like one of those colorful, delightful three dimensional pop-up books: Roy’s language has the power to animate. You don’t simply just read the book, but you see it, touch it, smell it, feel it: you entirely get lost in it. It’s a real treat for the literary mind.
It’s also a pleasant surprise that the book is not a flamboyant exotic read on India. In fact, it shatters our romantic ideas about the country. But it’s so abundant in fine cultural, political and social details, that there’s much to take-away in this sense, too. (More on the aspect of place below.)
And while I could and should stop here, because it would do justice to this excellent book, I still can’t help blurting out the things that I didn’t like about it. First of all, so far it’s been the only book that not only managed to shock me out of the blue, but actually made me physically ill. And I’m not exaggerating here. Yes, I like to think I understand the need of those episodes, and it’s part of Roy’s unique ride. Probably it should be even regarded as a merit of the book: capable of enticing such vivid feelings, including repulsion. Almost as if putting you back in the shoes of a child from where the magnitude of things are different. All of a sudden, in the world of the Goddess of Small Things and her little protagonists, you need to face too much beauty, too much ugliness, too much life. But however justified it is, I just can’t get over this feeling of nausea.
Second of all, and now this can’t be seen as a merit at all, I missed depth at the end. Telling the end of the book doesn’t exempt the author of gifting the reader with the cathartic feeling. Great Story or not, it will be still dearly missed. And the style is also so different, so average, so not Goddess-like, that it feels like a crack on a perfect work. And makes Roy just a woman of mould.
Have you read the book? What did you think about it? Are you planning to read Roy’s new novel, the Ministry of Utmost Happiness?