The God of Small Things

Author: Arundhati Roy

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1997

I read it: March 2016


There are some books that haunt your shelves. You know the type. Not all of your unread books fit this mold. I’m talking specifically about the ones that you know you should read, for a reason other than “it’s on my shelf and I haven’t read it yet.” I was initially aware of The God of Small Things because it was a favorite of a good reader friend of mine. The copy I have, water-stained and wavy, might even have previously belonged to her. I can’t remember at this point.

This book also has notoriety working in its favor. Aside from winning the fancy awards, it remains the only novel by Arundhati Roy. From what I hear, she focused her subsequent efforts on non-fiction and political causes. Also, the story fits the category of the type that begs to be told, one that has its own legs and soul and just needed the right vessel to get put to page. It’s not that Roy wouldn’t have the ability to crank out more quality fiction; it’s just a question of whether she already told her one bright burning story, and anything after wouldn’t have the same aura of feeling essential.

Most of the action takes place in India in 1969, and most of the plot revolves around the tragic death of a young girl. This is revealed within a few pages, and then the reader circles through several character perspectives before discovering how and why everything happened. The mistakes made are not the type that can be easily atoned for:

Some things come with their own punishments. Like bedrooms with built-in cupboards. They would all learn more about punishments soon. That they came in different sizes. That some were so big they were like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. You could spend your whole life in them, wandering through dark shelving.

The novel is dense, a prime candidate for English class discussions. It’s also incredibly tactile, so intense and so there. You know that old writing trick of making sure there is at least one of the five senses triggered on every page? Roy seems to do it in every other sentence.

And the sentences are masterful. A lot of the language is lensed through two young twins, Rahel and Estha: educated but fatherless, gripped in a strange family history which is itself trapped in India’s achingly outdated caste system. The societal background rules guide each character directly and indirectly:

History’s fiends returned to claim them. To re-wrap them in its old, scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived. Where the Love Laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

Phrases like these, as well as “Things can change in a day,” function as this book’s “So it goes.” They reach out and grab the reader’s chin to face them squarely toward the page. A sense of dread follows and the reader becomes another inevitable player in history’s crazy dances, a god of small things who must affect and be affected by the story’s implications.


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