Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

IMG_3353In this novel Arundhati Roy takes the reader all the way back to the 1960s, where a dark event in the state of Kerala in South India changed the lives of the twins Rahel and Esthappen. Having recently returned home after their mothers divorce, the twins find themselves having to settle into a new environment. Soon old conflicts within the family erupt again, affecting not only their mother Ammu but also Rahel and Esthappen.

The God of Small Things is a very clever novel about love, envy, fear and hatred. It is a story of a family as much as it is a story of a country:

“He explained to them that history was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit and ancestors whispering inside.”

The novel reveals its story not in chronological order but through jumping back and forth, not only between the different characters but also between the 1960s and 1990s.

We see the family before “the terror” and we see what has become of them years later. Roy reveals the repercussions of what has happened early in the novel, showing its aftermath before explaining what caused it. To me this technique heightened the emotionality und immediacy of the story, as I felt that something horrible was always just a page away and the innocence of the characters always seemed threatened. This feeling of dread continues throughout the whole novel and it is only on the last few pages that the reader can piece together the whole puzzle. It was surprising that Roy left the last key piece, which allows the reader an entry point to the full scope of emotions, to be revealed only at the very end. Despite her overuse of metaphors and sometimes too flowery language, Roy left a few things to the imagination of the reader, which I liked. She let all characters speak without judgement or preference.

The themes of this novel, like sexual assault, extreme violence, graphic descriptions of abuse and incest, are sometimes difficult to think about and to be with as a reader. To me the characters that were going through these ordeals were also representing struggles on a much larger scale. The story of people who are in love but are not allowed to be also came across as a social comment on the society in which this novel is set. As close as she sometimes stays with the characters, she also ventures out into both contemporary Indian society and historic events. I liked this two-sidedness. It seemed both emotionally involved and analytically detached:

“’We’re prisoners of war, Chacko said. ‘Our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed on ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter.’”

Even though the novel deals with so many important issues, I personally did not feel as involved with the story as I imagined I would. I was shocked by the violence and saddened by the loss, but in the end I still felt quite removed from the characters. The emotions I felt were more dutiful than honest. The essence of the characters was not easily accessible but hidden behind a highly structured plot and the calculated use of language. Despite the authors’ efforts, I felt there was something missing. Everything was too perfect, too thought through and too polished.

Quote: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

“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. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.”

Review: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

IMG_3199When Cassandra Edwards, the gay heroine of this 1962 novel, returns to her bohemian family home, a lot of things turn out differently than both Cassandra and the reader might have expected.

The novel opens with a spotlight on Cassandra, who is currently writing a thesis on French female writers at her Berkeley apartment, which until recently she used to share with her twin sister Judith. They shared not only their apartment, their piano and their carefully collected antique furniture but also their life. Over years they had carefully constructed an identity, in which both of them were only half a person, could only be a whole if they were together. But now that Judith has moved away and is about to get married, this identity and life that Cassandra needs so desperately to function is being threatened.

The reader immediately gets a sense of the smart but erratic, lonely and nerve-wrecked Cassandra as she travels home to sabotage her sisters wedding. As she arrives on the farm, set in the foothills of the Sierra, everyone in the family has a part to play. Often quirky, sometimes comical, the interactions follow the well-rehearsed behaviour that the Edwards family has constructed over time. But this façade of interaction is only a thin veil, which covers a much darker truth. Cassandra hides behind a shower curtain, spies on her sister and lies to her grandmother. She also hides her true feelings about the wedding and her new life without her sister. This pain, felt only in secret, will lead to disastrous consequences. Through the possibility of losing Judith, Cassandra has to redefine her whole identity as well. She has to reset the goals in her life. While once plans and decisions were made together, she now has to come to terms with what she herself really wants in life. And this means facing the reality of wanting different things than Judith does:

“Same thing everywhere I’d looked. Large amounts of safety; very few risks. Let nothing endanger the proper the proper marriage, the fashionable career, the non-irritating thesis that says nothing new and nothing true.”

During the course of the novel Baker brilliantly shifts the perspective of one sister to the other to give the reader not only a deeper understanding of the situation but also the unique view of how both of the sisters perceive their bond and relationship. Where Cassandra perceives herself as part of a whole and has not found a way to live without her sister, Judith the emotionally stronger and much more mature of the two, understands that were they to stay together, their union would lead to their destrucion.

To me, reading this novel felt like watching a classic movie. Baker followed the characters, mostly in real time, through their emotional struggles without censoring their experience down to a few selected flashes. Sometimes however Bakers slow paced style requires some patience from the reader. Also the way Baker hinted at Cassandra’s sexuality reminded me of mid-century Hollywood movies. You sometimes had to read between the lines. But even though Cassandra’s sexuality was not as openly discussed as I imagined from the text on the jacket, it is nonetheless a book that features a lot of strong women characters.

I enjoyed reading this book and must say that certain scenes stayed with me long after I had finished it. I appreciated that she allowed the reader to make their own interpretations of the emotional states of the sisters by giving them both very distinct voices.

Quote: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

“With men I feel like a bird in the clutch of a cat, terrified, caught in a nightmare of confinement, wanting nothing but to get free and take a shower. “Birds don’t take showers,” Jude said, and I had to give her instances of birdbaths and lawn sprays and sprinkling systems and fountains in parks, before I could get to what I had to tell her, which was nothing so simple as the cat-and-bird relationship, even without the shower, because I’m not afraid of women; they don’t terrify me slightly. Up to a point they fascinate me, and I said so.”