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.