The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997, the year I turned 17. I didn’t find it until a decade later when a friend gave me her extra copy, telling me it was one of the best books she’d ever read. It was the year I started my blog, when I was writing almost every Saturday about the books I’d finished, but still I only managed to mention it in passing, saying “you have to read it to get it. Explanation will cause it harm.” I still stand by that–though now that I’ve read it again (for my 2016 reading resolution), I will attempt to say more than a sentence.
This is not a happy story. But it is a poignant one.
The book is about a relatively well-off family in Ayemenem, India and how they cope after a family tragedy. Roy narrates the past through the eyes of Rahel and Estha, fraternal twins whose mother just moved them back to the family home she fled, now fleeing an abusive relationship with her husband.
Rahel and Estha desperately try to interpret their mother’s behavior, but as children lack the capacity for grasping the depth of her sadness and the complex situation she is in. When their cousin from London visits and praised as a perfect child, and when Estha has a disturbing run-in with a food vendor, they create their own child-like philosophies for how to live in response to hardship. It’s a story not just about the ache of feeling unknown and misunderstood, but also the larger political and social realities of the 1970s in India and the ways they impacted human interaction and empathy. Roy’s poetic, often lyrical work is able to capture the essence of the human condition:
“And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside,” (page 136).
“There is a war that makes us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves,” (page 52).
Throughout the story, Rahel also narrates from the present day, reflecting on the events in her memory, trying to work out how everyone morphed into what they are in their once-grand house, decaying and seemingly haunted.
Like I said ten years ago, this book is really difficult to write about because there is just so much to consider–each character could get its own blog post, really, because Roy has crafted such an intricate, emotionally rich story. I think, in the end, I can say this: its the kind of book that makes you feel closer to people–there is such a depth to the characters, that when the story ends, you feel like you understand people a little bit more.