Review: The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy) by Annoushka Clear

Arundhati Roy has worn many hats in her time. She trained as an architect, worked as a production designer, an actor, has written screenplays and numerous political essays. Her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was published a full twenty years after her first, during which time Roy devoted herself to political activism in India. It is possible to read within this second novel the maturation of her politics, a different kind of certainty in her voice, a kind of coherence wherein it seems possible to find answers. It is however the absence of this coherence that makes The God of Small Things possibly the best book I have ever read, or if not the best, the closest to my heart. 

The God of Small Things was published in 1997, and won the Booker Prize that year. It was earmarked for success from the start, and Roy was given a quarter of a million as an advance for her debut novel. Like The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it is saturated in history and politics. But The God of Small Things is semi auto-fictional, vast and expansive and simultaneously minute, intricate and personal. Its plot arranges itself in concentric, overlapping circles, like the rippling caused by pebbles dropped in water, around two defining moments: the long awaited reunion of the two-egg twins, Estha and Rahel, and the death of their cousin Sophie Mol, twenty-four years earlier, which caused them to be separated. Like Roy, the twins were born to a Malayali Syrian Christian mother and a Hindu tea plantation manager father. The twins, like Roy, grew up in Kerala after their parents separated, and Rahel, too, goes on to study architecture. The story weaves back and forth in time, reaching back into the past to explore the lives of the twins’ family, tracking the cracks that trace through the generations, and feeling out the deep, cracking roots of western influence on the people of Kerala.

One of the reviews featured in my copy of the book by the British press reads as follows: ‘Rich and compelling. Roy has a refreshing originality and a desire to tell a good yarn that I found really appealing.’ This, to me, is sort of funny in its missing-of-the-point. This story is not simply a ‘good yarn’, and I don’t believe that its primary purpose is to be appealing. There are many moments of hilarity, and even piercing moments of joy, but these moments are thrown up like spray from the churning body of rage and pain that is the material Roy shapes. She forces us to look, unblinking, at ugliness, and see within it an ironic beauty, like a ‘bird in flight reflected in the shiny skin of an old dog’s balls’. It’s hard to say what the significance of this image truly is. Maybe all that exists is what is there on the face of it. 

The characters in the novel are ‘locked out of their own history’, separated from themselves as the twins are separated from each other. This fracturing results in an inability to recognise and reconcile the ‘self’. As children, the twins think of themselves as one person, but this ‘self’ can never be reunified – one split into two can never become one again, no matter how hard it may try. Fractures web through the entire novel, in the personalities of the characters, in the political and religious landscape, twisting and suddenly splitting. Anglophilia is insidious, and the rage that sometimes flares in realisation often evaporates once it has been felt; because it has nowhere to go, it settles back into routine. The children are told to speak English, not Malayalam, and they are read works of English literature like The Jungle Book, written by a raving colonialist, and The Tempest, which also contains themes of colonial orientalism. Mr. Kurtz of The Heart of Darkness is refigured as an unhinged paedophile who shoots himself in the head, but his house is still there, creaking in the verdant jungle. What’s left is a limping Caliban, still loving his neglectful creator.

Many moments in the novel resist interpretation in a way that feels similar to the circular nature of self-interrogation – there is no real sense to be found. There is just the fact of the mess of detritus, the fracturing left by colonialism; a mosaic made of smashed stained glass windows. It is furiously beautiful, something that can only be felt, never understood. Roy creates her own matrix of signification, weaving tapestries of metaphor, layering up meaning barely contained by the sounds, the shapes of the letters that make up her words. Love and hate hurt in equal measure – reading it is like carrying a too-full bucket of a sloshing, spilling ache. When it spills over Roy splashes in it anyway, after all, its only water. 

Annoushka is currently a screenwriting student and an aspiring TV writer based in London. She misses cocktails and spends too much time watching cat videos. 

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