The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
321 pages
HarperCollins, 1997
Genre: Fiction
Re-readability: I won’t be reading this one again
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by Pete

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things follows the twins Estha and Rahel and the drama that surrounds their family. It takes place mostly in Ayemenem, India, and weaves the Indian caste system, Christianity, and communism throughout its sparse plot.

I picked this book up because I’d been in a reading slump, and I usually find that the best way to get out of a reading slump is to try something out of my comfort zone. This isn’t the sort of book I would normally read, and I struggled to break through its dense, summary-style narrative at first.

Unfortunately, my initial impression was correct; this book was not for me. It is a family drama, and I have enjoyed very few of these. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the genre, but I find that in general I just don’t like reading about family troubles. Even in the setting of 1960s India, the familial tenseness and secrecy felt the same as other books in the genre.

The story was structured in an unusual way: before and after a major event, the death of Estha and Rahel’s cousin, Sophie Mol. We are told that Sophie Mol, Ammu (Estha and Rahel’s mother), and Velutha (an untouchable and family friend) will meet terrible ends in the first few pages of the story. Then you make your way through the chapters that jarringly flip from before the accident to after the accident and you get to see how people used to be and how they were changed. The result is two stagnant parts of a story. I didn’t feel like I was given a chance to watch the characters change. I saw that they became different later, and I was told in slow detail how and why they became different. But I didn’t see or feel it happening.

By the last third of the novel, Roy’s apt and clever descriptions become a steady drum that she beats constantly. Estha is described by his deflated pouf. Rahel by her fountain in a Love-In-Tokyo. I didn’t understand the purpose of this dedication to repetition. It felt like she only allowed herself a few dozen phrases with which she could describe things, and by the end of the book, she was forced to use the same ones over and over.

Roy undoubtedly has a talent for creating fascinating characters, though she doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Baby Kochamma, great aunt of the protagonists, is one of the most pathetic, unpleasant, and cruel characters I have read. She is delightfully fun to dislike.

One recurring theme that bothered me was the general nastiness of the human body and its functions. There were several scenes in which going to the bathroom is described in detail so rich you can almost smell it. This wasn’t a pleasant reading experience the first time, or the second, or the third, and I failed to see what purpose it served.

If Roy had set her characters into motion and given them drive, they may have given this book movement, energy, and excitement. Instead, it was like reading about an intricate painting that becomes more and more detailed every moment but is still static by the end.

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