“It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.”
On the face of it, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God of Small Things tells the story of a family tragedy in Ayemenem, India in 1962. Beneath a tragic storyline, Roy crafts a complex, politically charged examination of stolen innocence and human desperation – a rich, animated novel woven with some of the most spectacular descriptions I’ve read and held in place with a generous measure of almost unbearable misery. This is a novel with many faces, rattling with complex language, rich metaphor, political voice and a sense of premonition so strong it churns your insides and prickles the hair on the back of your neck.
Seven year old twins Rahel and Estha live with their divorced mother Ammu, grandparents and Uncle Chacko, who recently returned from England after a divorce, leaving behind his ex-wife Margaret and young daughter Sophie Mol. When Margaret’s new husband dies in an accident, Chacko invites her and Sophie Mol to spend the holidays in Kerala. This sets in motion a fateful series of events which culminate ultimately in the death of Sophie Mol and alter the family irreparably.
Written in a dizzying, non-sequential narrative style, the story flits to and fro between 1962 and 1993. Roy delineates haunting scene after haunting scene with a genre defining mastery, spinning a compelling web of meanings, causes and consequences with each temporal shift and revealing at each stop the significance of each event in the timeline of the twin’s lives. Though the spinning pace and jarring structure take on an ever-so-nearly-disillusioning quality, Roy manages to reign in her narrative just short of completely confusing. Instead, The God of Small Things is guided to a different territory, where narrative structure cleverly reflects a fitting metaphor – that memories are rarely sequential and things don’t always make sense, especially from the perspective of a child!
Most enjoyable perhaps for me was that juvenile perspective and the unique voice given to Estha as events unfold. Roy’s depiction of innocence sets the reference point by which we experience the main events of the novel and so many of her adult themes are written with all the fragile innocence of early childhood, setting a poignant contrast. On the one hand we have brooding, atmospheric gloom waiting in ambush at every corner, yet this menace hides in the history of children, crouching in the shadows of a pretty, lyrical prose – a prose which serves to decorate an unforgettable message -the consequences of small things can be devastating, things can change in a day, and it’s best to be prepared.