Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The God of Small Things

Arudhati Roy's The God of Small Things is a superb book. Roy won England's Booker Prize the year the book came out, and it's easy to see why. Her physical descriptions of people are unrivaled. The characters are round and emotionally complex.

The book is truly Fringey in its portrayal of feminism, and in the complex way it wrangles with Marxism. The work lives up to its packaging, on which John Updike proclaims, "A novel of real ambition must invent its own language, as this one does." Roy's nimble linguistic inventions recall Ulysses in their lists, nicknames, and capitalization.

A Real. Good. Read.

The book follows the travail of a family in Kerala, India, particularly of two fraternal twins, Estha and Rahel, alternating between a past tragedy and its ramifications in the present. The family is Christian, of a touchable caste and owns a rubber plantation, rice fields, and (to my delight) a pickle factory.

Roy lays all her cards on the table early on -- the reader knows that the book's central tragedy involves the death of the twins' cousin, a half-British girl on vacation in India from England, as well as a local worker on the property of whom the twins are fond. And yet, this knowledge, and the way in which Roy tells and retells certain events serves only to heighten the tension as the dreaded tragedy approaches.

In a meta passage in the book, in the book's present where the adult twins visit a temple to see kathakali, Roy writes, "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. They don't surprise you with the unforseen.[...] You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't" (218). This book lives up to the epic bar that it sets for itself.

The theme of colonialism runs gently through the book, as various characters remember and sing or recite bits of Shakespeare and other classic works.

Roy had my emotions dancing on a string until page 311. The last ten pages of her writing didn't resolve the plot or the emotional wounds she had opened -- she breaks a certain taboo in these pages, which is not in itself a bad thing, but it didn't feel rooted in character so much as an author's ploy to help one storyline end.

Overall, it's a wonderful, complex, juicy, can't-put-it-down, linguistically creative, politically savvy novel. Oh yeah. And besides writing this novel, Arundhati Roy happens to be pretty cool.

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