I’ve just surfaced from this book after three days of intensive bouts of reading. To say ‘gripping’ is to do it an extreme disservice – it’s as though it’s a quality that occurs in the novel as a mere side-effect of this writer’s brilliance. Arundhati Roy has a new devotee. I still can’t quite figure out where the brilliance lies; it’s hard to pinpoint in the swirling mass of brilliant elements that make up this masterly first novel.
It’s the visceral, evocative landscapes and textures and tastes that first grab you; it’s a sensually recognisable India, and the characters that people this text are as alive and fleshy as the land. Then there’s the undercurrent of Horror, with no small reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and I’m always open to a well-placed Conrad echo. The Horror pushes the story along in front of it, out of sight until the layers start to peel back. Extraordinary suspense, extraordinary pace; at once full of the minute details and sweeping vistas of human experience. That’s what it comes down to in the end I suppose, the humanity of this novel – the instantly recognisable and sympathetic rhythms it beats out.
The God of Small Things – a novel about a family that ‘tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how, and how much’. It’s also about silence, and bitterness, and loss; about childhood and language and ownership; sex and power and desire; the ancient and the modern, and perhaps most interestingly of all; history. All of these well-trodden tropes are miraculously vivified and instilled with new relevance. Above all, I suppose, it’s a great and tragic story played out on a small stage that resonates through the whole spectrum of human storytelling from the murky past to the here and now.
The John Berger quote in the preface ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one’ gives the reader some inkling about the themes to be played out here, and in what context. Empire and Imperialism are everywhere and nowhere; Postcolonial narratives are played out in the deepest recesses and shape – but do not define – the unfolding events. This is a woman’s voice. This is an outsider’s inside perspective. This is a story told from the bowels of something more essential than it’s component parts, it’s skin colour or it’s gender. It is concerned with Small Things that often take the place of Big Things.
Looking at it now, I can’t quite believe how much is packed into such a small space. It’s only 340 pages long, and it feels as though it’s at least 500; the immersive quality of Roy’s prose is so absorbing and hypnotic, you’re carried along with the river currents and followed by the insects of this book right until the very end. And what an ending. It’s a shock how gracefully you’re led away from this book, as resolution and hope and tenderness lift their heads and send the aching reader off with a reassuring squeeze. Unprecedented. Beautiful. Insightful. Extraordinary. Read it.