Hawaii Pacific Review: HPR 2012 Book Reviews

The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy

Reviewed by Tooba Arbab

The setting is in a small village called Ayemenem, in the capital city of Cochin in the South Indian State of Kerala. The setting—It is lush with greenery, forests and a criss-cross of interconnected canals, lakes, estuaries, and rivers known as the Kerala Backwaters. Just like the setting of the story, the content is so thick with poetry and meaning that it almost feels like writing about it does not do justice to the book. However, the three main aspects that stood out from my reading of The God of Small Things are author’s the style of writing, the plot/content and language.   

Roy broaches critical and taboo topics in a very childish, casual and almost mocking manner so that the gravity of the situation gets to the reader twofold. Roy uses the epigraph to the book “Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one" as the central idea to establish her nonlinear and multi-perspective way of storytelling. She uses stylistic tricks such as capitalizing significant words: “Excitement Always Leads to Tears. Dum Dum.” and “And the Air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” relating tales of tragedy and horror in an oddly jaunty way. The author focuses the entire story on the lives and day-to-day activities of two twelve-year-old egg twins, Estha and Rahel, yet manages to illuminate the societal and cultural squalor of south India.

 The plot pushes the limits of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. It is morally strenuous and imaginatively supple. The story has no one particular conflict, and no particular resolution. It begins at a funeral of Estha and Rahel’s playmate and half-English cousin Sophie Mol, as she dies on her visit from England to Cochin. Although it seems that the conflict of the story is the death of Sophie Mol and how she died, the main culprit is the social norms of Kerala that act as the silent but central theme of the story. Roy displays a series of chaotic and unfortunate events surrounding the Ayemenem house and its occupants. The focal events of the story range from Estha and Rahel innocently playing in the woods, to Estha being molested by a soda vendor at a movie theatre; to the hype of the preparation of Sophie Mols’ arrival, to the lull after her death; from Rahel’s struggle to earn the love of her mother as a child, to despising her for her lack of attention as an adult; from maintaining strong caste boundaries among servants and owners, to making love to a servant after being banished from the family; and ultimately, from spending their childhood as siblings, to making love out of "hideous grief" as adults. The content of the story is so varied and shocking, that it keeps the readers enthralled until the very end.     

The theme of the book is dark. But Roy manages to portray darkness beautifully with the use of descriptive language. “The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads”. She provides an excellent imagery in the introductory paragraph to allure the reader; she focuses on the small and external beauty of the setting, before she cleverly states: “The confusion lay in a deeper, more secret place.” Roy has a tendency to elaborate on the minutest aspects -- from tiny insects to momentous events -- she spares no detail, be it big or small, thus exemplifying the title The God of Small Things.    

 This book can be best described as a beautifully constructed labyrinth. There is no one genre that this book dwells on. It can be considered a part political fable, part psychological drama, part fairy tale, and begins at its chronological end. The book consists of 21 chapters and 340 pages. It is a short novel, but captures a lifetime of events surrounding the Ayemenem house and its occupants.