Originally published in Aaj Magazine , January/February, 1998.

The God of Small Things

by Arundhati Roy

Random House of Canada, 1997. 321 pp, $28.95.

Reviewed by Michael Brockington

Only a few things happen in The God of Small Things. Those things are terrible, on the small and human scale of things, but described with beauty and a sensuous brutality. Key events reverberate forward and backward in time, accumulating detail, wrapped in multiplying layers of description and emotion. 

Much of the book is experienced through the perceptions of boy/girl twins Rahel and Estha, who live an existence both privileged and precarious as children of a divorced mother from an affluent Indian family. In the framing narrative they are adults; but in 1969 when the main story unfolds, they are children. The life of the novel is trapped in the past, with only the hope of healing animating a wounded present. 

The raw facts around which the novel revolves are revealed immediately: the deaths of the twins' half-English cousin Sophie, and of their untouchable friend Velutha; a forbidden love affair; the separation of the twins; the early death of their mother Ammu. These are events from which there is no escape. This is not a book, clearly, of what-happens-next. Plot is secondary to character and atmosphere. 

Describing a troupe of Kathakali dancers, Roy suggests that the classical dance form is a repository of Great Stories, "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." Her ambition for this novel is clear; plot twists would be a petty distraction. The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize last year - the premier prize for fiction in the English language. Obviously Roy has written a very good story. But Great? That judgment can only be ratified by time, by decades. 

In place of plot, we get people: mothers, fathers, uncles, great-aunts, grandparents. No character dives cleanly into the narrative. The novel opens with a quote from John Berger: "Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one." This makes for slow going, especially at first, when the principals are being introduced. 

Not until page 31 do we encounter the novel's opening paragraph:

They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. 

The marketing team squeezes this quote onto the dustjacket, spotlighting what is both most fascinating and most frustrating about the novel. Nothing is where it should be. The main action of the story takes place in a single day, but nothing progresses far without triggering flashbacks or flashforwards. The story circles around its core like a ball in a rigged roulette wheel. Hypnotic, repetitive. Finding its centre only at the end, completing a pattern that never had anything to do with chance. 

This is when we finally glimpse the tiny kernel of joy that sets the plot in motion. Only at the end, after Roy has examined and polished each fragment of misery that results. Perhaps because joy is in such desperately short supply for these characters, it seems a very cruel construction. 

The novel has good bones; structure gives it impact. But its breath, its life lies in its language.

Kerala State in southern India is evoked through every sense; even a recipe for banana jam appears. The writing is lush, occasionally to the point of overgrowth, but always inventive. The flow of words is both natural and startling: "Rahel's new teeth were waiting inside her gums, like words inside a pen." Roy's capacity for simile and metaphor seems boundless. Although the reader's endurance may be more finite. 

The author plays with language, mischievous. She runs words together, often breaks them apart in unexpected places. Arbitrary capitalization layers overtones onto banal phrases. Nouns become verbs, adjectives nouns, parts-of-speech reconfigured at will. The blurring of boundaries which haunts the characters is mirrored in the words dancing across the page. 

Certain phrases become mantras, repeated throughout, reflecting the overall structure at a smaller scale. Repetition and rhythm shade into poetry. At times these resonant phrases have the feel of musical gestures or architectural motifs. And at other times, the repetition simply becomes repetitious. Words acquire ritual overtones. And like religious chants, the speech gets shadowed by the sound, meaning blurred by echoes. 

The playfulness, the fixation on key phrases, these qualities are evocative of a child's stream-of-consciousness. This works very well for parts of the novel told from children's viewpoints. However, the style spills over into adults' narratives as well. 

But one can also see a subtle violence in this use of words, in grammar violated, meanings twisted. When I think of other writers who take considerable liberties with English - James Joyce, J. P. Donleavy, or more recently, Irvine Welsh - the first names that come to mind are Irish and Scottish. Like Roy, they come from cultures colonized by the British. For all of them, to some degree, the English language is a foreign tongue. So it's less completely internalized, easier to perceive as a thing separate from the self. Easier to grasp and manipulate. And this idiosyncratic expression can be seen, perhaps, as a rebellion, even a revenge for the mental violation of a language forcibly imposed. 

The tyranny of English is an undercurrent running through The God of Small Things. Roy's capturing the Booker Prize, then, takes on shades of irony that are interesting to contemplate.

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