By Arundhati Roy; Random House; @ 1997; 321 pages.
Do not give books that you have not read to friends, relatives, strangers, etc.
Don’t do it.
I could almost stop my little book report here. Literature, it seems, is a beautiful way to talk about horrible things. Take if from me, if you must give a book, give a book of jokes by Reader’s Digest.
I first became aware of the book The God of Small Things during a bout of insomnia. Flipping channels at 4 a.m., I landed on PBS and saw Arundhati Roy interviewed. I was so impressed by her that I became obsessed with buying her book.
Following my oh-so-flawed pattern, I purchased the book right away, but did not read it until now. And, so sure was I at how great this book would be that I bought a copy and gave it to an acquaintance/friend several months ago. (Curses/embarrassment.)
Arundhati writes her story using the omniscient narrator. This way she can tell us the thoughts and motivations of all of her characters. The story’s theme focuses on the Love Laws of India: “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” This is all very foreign territory for me, since sadly I know next to nothing about India.
Of course, India is not the only country (or culture) that has taboos about love. We all do, and taboos are just that: taboo. It sounds like ewwww, and that’s what they are for us, big ewwwwws. Some taboos are larger than others. Some are no longer so taboo. Arundhati starts us out with taboos that are bad for Indian culture, but for Americans, eh, not so much. Her story becomes a gradient of taboos, introduced so gradually, you barely notice what’s happening, until you’re in her scene where her characters are in the theater watching The Sound of Music, and then blammo. Then it levels off for a while as you are fed information and are trying to figure out what exactly happened, for about 100 pages. The finale features a fireworks of taboos.
Arundhati is one of those authors who delivers hugely in the area of craft, and The God of Small Things could be read as much for the story as for the craft used to tell it. Information is portioned out, like strands of yarn. Strand by strand, she tells us about her characters’ problems. We’re too close to each strand to really understand what’s happening, until eventually everything is woven into place.
The story begins in Ayemenem, India, with Estha and Rahel, dizygotic (two-egg twins), who after a tragic turn of events are separated at the age of seven. Now at 30, Rahel has returned to India to find her brother Estha damaged, changed, broken. To know their story, we find out about their family members.
Their mother Ammu, for instance, made a terrible life-altering mistake and married the wrong man, thus forever ending her chances for societal-sanctioned love:
Ammu watched her husband’s mouth move as it formed words. She said nothing. He grew uncomfortable and then infuriated by her silence. Suddenly he lunged at her, grabbed her hair, punched her and then passed out from the effort. Ammu took down the heaviest book she could find in the bookshelf—The Reader’s Digest World Atlas—and hit him with it as hard as she could. On his head. His legs. His back and shoulders. When he regained consciousness, he was puzzled by his bruises. He apologized abjectly for the violence, but immediately began to badger her about helping him with his transfer. This fell into a pattern. Drunken violence followed by postdrunken badgering….”
Ammu divorces “the wrong man” and does the best she can. She loves her children terribly:
To Ammu, her twins seemed like a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs. Ammu watched over them fiercely. Her watchfulness stretched her, made her taut and tense. She was quick to reprimand her children, but even quicker to take offense on their behalf.”
Arundhati got off to a wonderful start. Her narrative style and the cadence of her words are poetic, but then from time to time she slaps us around with bad/vulgar words.
OK, I realize that bad words have their place. They can convey feeling, tone, loss of emotional and rational control, and social background. They are valuable. But when one is talking about something sensitive, smooth, and touching, and a four-letter word is tossed down, there’s a question. What exactly is the motivation behind this sudden jolt of cold water? Why this smack in the face? If that question can’t be answered in terms of advancing the plot (congruence with overall philosophy or tone isn’t enough), then I think the bad word needs to go. It’s too jarring.
This book, like a person who delivers sensitive information too soon, runs the risk of being cast aside. For me, the foreshadowing was so intense and offensive that I nearly closed the book forever; I nearly discarded the deftly crafted tale, the intricacies, and all the strands of information that would be eventually woven back together and understood. The story seemed like it might be too horrible to read; the characters too innocent; the demons too demonic; then Arundhati coaxes us back in. But don’t be fooled, she is determined to make her point.
Did I like the book? Yes and no. Would I read it again? Well, parts of it to help me with my own writing. (Arundhati is so tremendously talented.)
I won’t again ignorantly hand a book to someone based on the pretty flower/lily pad theme on the cover or the very charming PBS interview given by the author. Reading books with friends, like sharing art with friends, might not be my thing.
The God of Small Things was wonderful in so many ways, I hate to say anything bad about it. Still, it wasn’t the book for me. I wanted something else from this book; I wanted a closer connection to at least one of the characters, and yet, I thought it was very well done.
It was interesting in the end to know that The God of Small Things is The God of Loss.