The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

(IndiaInk, 1997)

Amazon.com: The God of Small Things: A Novel (9780812979657): Roy ...

I picked up this book because I was craving more Indian lit after finishing Latitudes of Longing, (which, 3 months later, I still cannot stop thinking about), and Shubhangi Swarup lists Arundhati Roy as one of the influences on her writing. I read the back cover of The God of Small Things, which on my copy begins by saying, “Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens … .” As someone with a passionate disdain for Dickens and distrust of anyone who voluntarily reads Faulkner, this made me nervous. Then again, what does an Indian woman writing in the 21st century have to do with the white men of the 19th? Before even opening the first page I was thinking about what it means to compare a novel to Dickens and Faulkner, and how doing so is assumed to be somehow the highest level of praise. With all this in mind, I dove in, and what I found was the beautiful, tragic classic that I never knew was available to me. Where A Tale of Two Cities made me (a reader!) hate the idea of reading, The God of Small Things in all its lengthy, descriptive, dark, epic glory, had me re-reading paragraph after paragraph after paragraph to ensure I didn’t miss a single moment.

The story takes a little time to ramp up. It took me a while to figure out how the characters were related (literally—it is a family drama) to each other, who was who, and who I should like and who I should not, but with some patience, I found my bearings. And in hindsight, while at times I felt like I was trying to put a puzzle together with a lot of missing pieces, Roy goes into detail about each character’s background at the precise moment in the narrative at which she is ready for you to know about them. The God of Small Things has a complicated but meticulously crafted narrative structure. While I could see some readers not enjoying it, I loved it. And I might have had a more difficult time becoming invested in the story early on if it wasn’t for the fact that I became enamored with the twins, the central characters—Esthappen and Rahel—by page 2, and also with Roy’s use of language.

The writing in The God of Small Things is truly gorgeous. I took a long time with this novel because I continuously got stuck on the sheer beauty of Roy’s sentences and analogies. In Goodreads and other summaries of this book, I saw it said that Roy has invented her own language to tell this story, and to me it feels more accurate to say she invented her own grammar. The most obvious is her liberal use of capitalization for emphasis. This is an idiosyncratic thing that I’ve come to love (I saw the reverse in Sister Outsider in Lorde’s refusal to capitalize amerika and to spell it with a “k”). Roy seems to use capitalization to indicate that a word is more than a word and is instead an idea. It helped me to focus on words that maybe I would have moved quickly passed otherwise, and I really enjoyed it. She also creates words and plays with their order and with hyphenation as a means to convey meaning. I found it all brilliant.

And while the events of The God of Small Things take place in India in 1969, it felt very relevant to what we’re seeing in 2020 America, the most obvious being the simultaneous ineptness and unchecked power of the police: “[He] seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn’t. Policemen have that instinct.” The central conflict exists within the context of such complex and inseparable issues as the Indian caste system, (internalized) sexism and gender roles, (internalized) racism, corrupt politics, and police brutality. And the terrible day in question, on which the entire narrative revolves, is experienced alongside a pair of seven-year-old twins. The way these children are betrayed by adults, over and over again, and too young to be able to do anything other than let the blame—the blame that is not theirs to have—consume them entirely, is crushing. The grownups, just big children themselves, take far less responsibility for their actions than the children do. Ultimately, the message is clear: the existing systems destroy the lives of everyone it touches.

Finally, I can’t complete this review without mentioning Ammu—the twins’ mother—who is one of the most tragic characters I’ve ever read. She is sympathetic, relatable, sometimes cruel, and so clearly doomed from the start. The ways Roy describes her is magnificent: “The Unmixable Mix—the infinite tenderness of motherhood, the reckless rage of a suicide bomber.” She is a woman that the world has no room for. Without spoiling anything, she becomes one half of—and I do not exaggerate—the most tragic and beautifully-written love story I have ever encountered. There is so much to this novel; I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about it. I would re-read it tomorrow if I could. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Latitudes of Longing, by Shubhangi Swarup

One World, 2020

Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup

I picked up this book on a whim at ALA (I was drawn to the cover and the title) and had no idea of the treat I was in for. The first third of the novel follows Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi: a newly married couple set up by their parents based on their compatible but very different interests, intelligences, and oddities. This section of the novel is flawless. The couple lives on a small and beautiful tropical island in the Bay of Bengal and you get to know them as they get to know each other: you will grow with them, learn with them, and eventually feel devastating loss and pain with them. And while their story is followed up by stories of new characters in new places, the lives of each character you meet is somehow tied to Girija and Chanda.

This first section is the longest and best of the novel. Of the following sections, there were some I loved and some I found just okay, but I found the conclusion to be entirely worth it. At the heart of Latitudes of Longing is a deep awareness of the relationship between humans and nature as well as a sense of humility toward and acceptance of natural forces. The natural thread that connects each character in Latitudes of Longing is each person’s proximity to a turbulent fault line that spans the Indian Plate, which takes the reader from the rural Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal to Kathmandu, Nepal to the mountains of Pakistan. Human history and geology are portrayed as inseparable. In a fascinating interview for “The Hindu,” Swarup says: “A tectonic fault line is the narrative thread of my novel, and when you shift your gaze this way, a very different story emerges. One where natural history is the framework to our lives, not political borders or artificial plots.” And in response to questions of the prominence of the environment in her novel: “We don’t need manic fluctuations in temperature to include rainforests and blue whales in our national discussions, novels or films. We just need humility.”

For fans of magical realism, Latitudes of Longing is magical realism informed by the religions and spiritualities of the Indian subcontinent. But for an ambitious literary novel, it is also grounded in a simultaneously gritty and beautiful reality. The stories are devastatingly human and universal. The title, Latitudes of Longing, is apt. You will feel the longing of the characters as well as a longing for life itself. I came out of this novel feeling bigger than I did before, in the sense that I suddenly encompassed knowledge of more places, more cultures, and more beliefs than I had previously. This beautifully-written epic novel is one that will stick with me for a long time to come.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org | The Hindu .com interview

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Granta Books, 2013

luminaries

I came across The Luminaries entirely on accident. The first time I noticed it was on a bookshelf in a hostel in Copenhagen. I mentally noted it as something I thought I’d enjoy and then completely forgot about it. Over a year later, I recognized it at a bookstore in Philly and bought it immediately. I did not come to regret it.

“Moody was silent for a time, wondering how to begin. “I am trying to decide between the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” he said presently. “I am afraid my history is such that I can’t manage both at once.”

“Hi – no need for the truth at all,” said Paddy Ryan. “Who said anything about the truth? You’re a free man in this country, Walter Moody. You tell me any old rubbish you like, and if you string it out until we reach the junction at Kumara, then I shall count it as a very fine tale.”

Defining what it means for something to be true is a central theme in The Luminaries, and I enjoyed this moment at the very end of the novel because Paddy Ryan’s response to Walter Moody feels like Catton explaining herself. The novel contains so many stories from so many characters that you’re often left wondering who was telling the “whole” truth and who wasn’t.

As for Eleanor Catton’s writing, it’s magnificent. The detail and beauty of her descriptions of every little thing from each of the numerous characters appearances, personalities, and fashions to descriptions of the town, the landscape, the streets, and everyday objects is extraordinary. I’m not a reader who typically enjoys overly descriptive writing, but Catton fits it so seamlessly into the novel that I didn’t feel that it bogged down the story or slowed the narrative. The vast descriptions made the story more real. The structure of the novel allows for the plot to unfold at an appropriate pace, something I’ve mentioned before I am very picky about. It is a very long, very dense read. It starts off a little slow at the beginning because of the sheer number of characters that are introduced, but by the time I was a third of the way through, I couldn’t put it down.

A huge element of the novel that I’m sure I mostly missed out on was the influence of the zodiac. I know very little about the zodiac, and there is a lot of symbolism in the The Luminaries based around it. There is numeric symbolism in the number of characters, and each character is affiliated with a different sign of the zodiac. At the start of each chapter, Catton states what house the sun is in. I imagine that this element of the novel would be really fun and exciting for a reader that is interested in astrology and the zodiac, and they would definitely pick up on more instances of it than I did.

The cast is made up mostly of men, as the story takes place during the gold rush in New Zealand, but the few female characters are strong ones. Not all strong women, but strong characters in that they exist because they exist in the story and not ever just as a counterpoint or plot-moving device for the men. The mystery at the heart of The Luminaries kept me on my toes and I found myself truly invested in uncovering the pieces of the puzzle. It is a mystery novel folded up inside a historical fiction with just a hint of the supernatural and is a real joy to read.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

Warner Aspect Books, 1998

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I had some doubts about Brown Girl in the Ring for the first 150 pages or so of reading it. My main concern was that the entire novel would be predictable—tropes were introduced that had the potential to unfold in a boringly predictable way. But as the conflicts took shape and began to reach resolution, Hopkinson blew me away with her creativity and particularly with her powerful feminism. There’s a lot of reviews that complain about Brown Girl in The Ring having an identity crisis. Is it sci-fi? Fantasy? Neither? Is it Jamaican or is it Canadian? The other recurring complaint I saw was about the protagonist being annoyingly immature. My response to these complaints are, respectively, I don’t care! and you’re wrong. Allow me to explain further.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize Brown Girl in the Ring in terms of genre, but frankly, I don’t care. If pressed, I’d describe it as a blend of science fiction dystopia and magical realism. Whatever it is, it worked for me. I could maybe understand the complaint that Hopkinson’s exploration into the science fiction themes just barely scratch the surface, except that this isn’t what the book is primarily about. The setting is Toronto and the majority of characters are Jamaican immigrants or children of immigrants. This is drawn from Hopkinson’s own experience as a Jamaican immigrant who lived most of her adult life in Canada. I found the merging of cultures in Brown Girl in the Ring to be unique and interesting and not at all cluttered. As for the immaturity of the protagonist, I have a lot to say in response.

The protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, is immature in many ways at the start of the novel. She has a child that she isn’t prepared to care for and has very little interest in caring for. She blames her grandmother for all of her frustrations, and she can’t control her attraction to her good-looking, sweet-talking, ex-boyfriend: Tony. But even at Ti-Jeanne’s most immature, you can see her potential for growth. One of my favorite feminist moments in the novel happens early on when Ti-Jeanne still thinks she’s in love with Tony. Tony asks why Ti-Jeanne left him (it was because of the baby), and just as Ti-Jeanne is about to open up to him and tell him “all her worries about whether Tony would have been able to help her provide for the child,” he interrupts her and says, “I would have let you keep the baby, no matter whose it is. I love you Ti-Jeanne” (73). Moments earlier Ti-Jeanne was swooning over Tony, but as soon as he says this, her response is shock. She thinks, “He would have let her keep the baby? The moment had passed. She gave Tony the glare that always threw him off balance.” This scene introduces feminism as a central element to Brown Girl in the Ring, and I quickly saw the novel as, above anything else, a feminist one. The central characters to the plot are Ti-Jeanne, her mother, and her grandmother, and the way these three generations of women navigate conflicts with each other, surpass obstacles, grow together, and support themselves in an unforgiving place is remarkable. It’s a powerfully feminist novel, and that, above all else, is what Brown Girl in the Ring is about. So to those who critique it for not being science-y enough, or not exploring the nuances of the dystopian setting enough, or whatever else, I think are missing the point of the novel entirely.

Links: Nalo Hopkinson .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org