In 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.