REVIEW: The God of Small Things

book cover of The God of Small ThingsThe lack of new book reviews being posted is not reflective of the number of books I have been reading. As we enter the last week of freedom before the fall semester starts, I have continued to read steadily. But the reviews have been stalled as I try to craft a review that will do justice to the best book I’ve read in a while: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I often find it much harder to review books I really like than books I didn’t like at all. I think it’s because I want very much to convey just why I liked it so much in a way that will inspire someone to want to read it themselves. When it comes to reviewing The God of Small Things, one of the stumbling blocks is that the book is a marvel of beautiful, inventive language that seems to demand the same of its reviewer.

The book, for those completely unfamiliar with it, details the ways in which a family falls apart in late 20th century India, seen largely through the eyes of a pair of fraternal twins (or as the book calls them, the Two-Egg Twins), Rahel and Estha. It’s a tragic story of a family brought to ruin by love for the “wrong” person, an Untouchable. To an outsider like myself, it stands as a subtly scathing indictment of the caste system, a societal arrangement that I am probably incapable of fully comprehending.

Ultimately, though, the story is about loss and how the human psyche deals with it. The twins experience a series of devastating losses:

  • their friend, Velutha
  • their beloved mother, Ammu
  • the rest of their admittedly dysfunctional family
  • their home
  • and (most heartbreaking of all) each other

Roy finely draws the way each of these losses affects the emotional growth of Rahel and Estha, but central to their experience is always their forced separation at the age of 8. Roy refers to them as the Two-Egg Twins, a semantic device to convey the way their family and even medical experts discount that inexplicable bond between siblings born at the same time. Even as the label tries to diminish the bond, she strengthens it with examples that show Rahel and Estha are in fact as strongly linked as any identical twins. They experience the emotions of the other as if they were their own, and they communicate often without words.

As I read The God of Small Things, it was hard to separate my appreciation of the story from my admiration of the way that Roy plays with the English language. The liberties she takes are far from mere affect; she uses them to skillfully convey the seemingly infinite fluidity of English or any foreign language as it’s being learned. Roy creates compound neologisms to describe the people and places that populate the book (the wetgreen grass; the thunderdarkness of the day); Rahel and Estha are repeatedly admonished for pronouncing English words backwards (“POTS” they read aloud as their car approaches an intersection. “naidnI yuB, naidnI eB”.) And most strikingly, Roy re-creates word breaks within common phrases (an owl who lives inside the family’s pickle factory is always and forever a Bar Nowl).

The fluidity of the language is reflected in the narrative, which slides back and forth from the past to the present. The reader learns early on that some tragedy has befallen the family and that as a result the twins were separated and sent to live apart. What, exactly, has happened is only gradually doled out by Roy. I found the suspense creating a low-level feeling of dread as I continued reading, both wanting and not wanting to know what the final break was. There’s no question that things will work out, or that anyone will live happily ever after, but I still found myself compulsively reading to the end anyway. Now that is a writer.