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Book Cover: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
This ain't no Slumdog Millionaire. That book showed the poverty, degradation, bigotry, oppressive systems, and selfish bullies of India, up close and in technicolor - just as this one does. But in Slumdog Millionaire, dozens of coincidences concatenate into incredible good fortune and a happy ever after ending. The God of Small Things travels in the opposite direction.

As a novel, Arundhati Roy's debut has a lot to recommend it. It won the Booker Prize, and it sold 6 million copies, as it deserved to. It has power, craft, lush language, intensely human characters, and a fresh and vivid Indian setting.

As a cosmic tragedy, this can be a hard book to enjoy. Or at least, so bitter that it takes a lot of chewing to get through. I found myself empathizing strongly with the characters - but I disliked most of them, and despised a few. There were only six characters who were really likable, mostly innocent of selfishness and malice: every one of them dies or is devastated by the end of the book. This is less of a spoiler than it seems. The hints of foreboding accumulate with every chapter, and the central funeral occurs three pages in.

The God of Small Things is very honest and brave. It has so much wonder, joy, humor and humanity bubbling through it that I never quite gave up on it. But it was often emotionally overwhelming - as, I think, it meant to be.

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 that 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 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. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again.

That is their mystery and their magic.

To the Kathakali Man these stories are his children and his childhood. He has grown up within them. They are the house he was raised in, the meadows he played in. They are his windows and his way of seeing. So when he tells a story, he handles it as he would a child of his own. He teases it. He punishes it. He sends it up like a bubble. He wrestles it to the ground and lets it go again. He laughs at it because he loves it. He can fly across whole worlds in minutes, he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf. Or play with a sleeping monkey's tail. He can turn effortlessly from the carnage of war into the felicity of a woman washing her hair in a mountain stream. From the crafty ebullience of a rakshasa with a new idea into a gossipy Malayali with a scandal to spread. From the sensuousness of a woman with a baby at her breast into the seductive mischief of Krishna's smile. He can reveal the nugget of sorrow that happiness contains. The hidden fish of shame in a sea of glory.

He tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart.

"the ungodly, human heart". That is the beating center of Roy's great work. She sees clearly the systems of society, with their rules and unspoken boundaries. She measures the perspectives of all her actors and observers. So when her accidents occur, when it's time for dreaming, hunger, violence, love, sex or death, Roy swims deep into the mystery and darkness, and we feel the currents on our skin.

The God of Small Things is semi-autobiographical; this helps explain how true it feels and how bitter it tastes. Roy is now an activist, continually stirring up trouble among the Powers That Be in India. Growing up, she saw the soul-crushing injustices of India, and lived through the fear and damage that bullies and manipulators wreak. A part of Roy was choking on all the bile she had swallowed. The God of Small Things was a place to spit it out, to give it shape and meaning, to fashion it into acid truth. I hope some of her bullies read her book, and felt cut down.

I've been watching and listening to interviews with Arundhati Roy. She is warm, eloquent, mercurial. The moment an interviewer sticks a label on her, or an explanation on her work, Roy jumps across the net, and expresses another view.

I particularly like the blend of toughness and tenderness I see in Roy. The God of Small Things is built upon rigorous thought and craft, then brought to life with intimate feeling and spontaneity.

When Roy began writing, she found herself stuck in one scene, at a level-crossing. She could not see how to fit all the different parts of her story into any kind of flow. But she had trained as an architect, which gave her a eureka moment. She spread out her old instruments, and worked out the plot and time-line as an architectural drawing.

The story has been smashed into pieces, and put back together as jumbled mosaic. Our main perspective is through the eyes of Rahel, but we jump back and forth from her at 7 in 1969, to her as a 31 year-old. We hop in-between, into family history, and sideways into other characters. I never found it hard to follow. Well, once I mistook Rahel's great-aunt for an aunt. Despite the seeming jumble, this weird pattern is a perfectly-woven tapestry, to tell this story. Roy threads us through events, inner-worlds, and relations, until we inhabit every character, and feel the entire significance of Roy's pattern and all her characters' fates.

That was the structure, the rigorous thought and planning Roy needed to map out such a large and multi-dimensional world. The tenderness is in her comprehensive empathy for each of her characters, and in her love of precision and exuberance in language.

There's nothing that pleases me more than a beautiful sentence.                                                                                                                       - Arundhati Roy
Roy's spontaneity, originality and invention shine from her language, but also permeate every aspect of her book. I felt she was reinventing the Novel from the ground up - as most great novels do.

Some people find The God of Small Things verbose, ornate and overdone. But Roy didn't forget herself here - every word is deliberately chosen. Roy surely has a lot of passion and poetry in her heart, and this poured out all over her first novel. For me, this exuberance fits the world she is showing us.

Roy is brilliant at taking us into the wide-eyed wonder of a 7 year old Rahel. Young Rahel's world is magical and tastes completely fresh. Roy is also showing us an undiscovered side of India, and needs it to sound like her youth, not like Kipling, Forster or Rushdie. She drops a lot of Malayam words into her text (e.g. kathakali and rakshasa in my first block quote). Since I'm the kind of reader who likes to comprehend every iota of the text, this bugged me a little - I'd look words up in the dictionary, only they weren't there. But Roy wanted her readers to face the mild confusion of an alien country; and was careful to provide enough context that we always half-know what her word meant.

Arundhati Roy is an admirer of James Joyce, and shares some of his joy in wordplay. She likes to fuse two words into a synergy of meaning. So we get a "steelshrill police whistle", and a baby bat roused in church becomes a "furrywhirring". A boy who has a most unpleasant Orangedrink Lemondrink experience, and gets nauseous, has a "green-wavy, thick-watery, lumpy, seaweedy, floaty, bottomless-bottomfull feeling".

There is a lot more to this book, but those are the aspects which most struck me. The characters were almost all compelling, and I found myself caring strongly for (or against) them. The one who is The God of Small Things was such a lovely man, comfortable with children and animals, close to nature and the gods. Then I realized he was also a carpenter, and wondered if the Christ-parallel was intentional. The one most responsible for the worst of the tragedy was quite demonic, very easy to hate; indeed, the blame is so expressly underlined that I think this one must have been based on someone who injured Arundhati Roy, or someone she loved, purely out of envy and spite.

There were many insights into India's bigotry of caste, color and gender in this book. If you follow Rahel's mother Ammu and uncle Chako through the book, the way their family and society react to their sexual peccadilloes, turning a blind eye to Chako's and punishing Ammu's severely - well, I can see why Arundhati felt so much bile at the injustice.

For a tragedy, The God of Small Things didn't quite reach catharsis. When I put the book down, I felt so much sympathy and grief for the victims, and such anger at the villains. Roy must have felt the same, as she quit fiction and became a determined activist. But, selfishly, I'm glad that after a decade of activism, Roy is now working on her second novel.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Feb 21, 2014 at 05:17 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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