Oh, look! A novel I had planned to review last year because 2017 marked its 20th birthday. What? It’s January 2018, now? Whoops. Oh well.
The God of Small Things wasn’t the best fiction I read in 2017. That minor honor goes to Shelter by Jung Yun, which I have yet to review (as well as nearly all my 2017 reads). But I couldn’t get it out of my head months after finishing it.
The God of Small Things focuses on a trope I have always loved and Roy built a family saga around it. The trope in question? A noble house in decay.
Roy chose a fascinating period in the decline of an esteemed house. The God of Small Things wasn’t written in chronological order, but as our mind figures out the story’s linear timeline, we realize that the story enters at a point where the house is already in decay and losing prestige. The current generation is simultaneously in denial and attempting to stave away the inevitable.
So we turn the pages awaiting a climax, after which the house loses all standing, good name, and even its income.
The God of Small Things starts with church rites. Sophie Mol, the nine-year-old half-British and half-Indian daughter of family heir Chacko, is dead. We know that Ammu, Chacko’s sister, and her twin children Rahel and Esthra were somehow seen as responsible for Sophie’s death. They were ostracized and pointed at during the funeral.
We are then launched into stories of various family members: the current clan and the older generation. Their backgrounds and most revealing anecdotes are told, creating fully realized characters. No one in this sprawling family is likable. In fact, the whole pack seriously needed copious therapy. All I see, page after page, is delusion, hypocrisy, petty drama, incompetence, and recklessness.
But then, is it a surprise if the man who built the family name was odious? A violent husband and an abusive father, but toadying towards the colonialists, his family cannot escape his clutches long after his death.
Decay and suffocation are themes that infuse The God of Small Things. When the timeline starts, Kerala, where the novel is set, was verdant and beautiful. When twin daughter Rahel returned as an adult woman, her hometown has become a tourist trap where water no longer supports life. The fish are dead and belly-up. The house falls, the land polluted. There is decay and there is inertia, the sense that everything stays the same, yet rot inevitably infests. There are fathers with great hopes for their sons but sons grow up to be menial men with mediocre jobs and class stays unchanged.
The prose of The God of Small Things is famously divisive. It took me a while to finally take the plunge and read as I feared the novel required complete focus, with a dense writing style and a tangled family tree. Nah. Everything’s easy to follow.
The poetic flourishes of The God of Small Things reads childlike and excited to my eyes, rather than esoteric. Makes sense. While we are given an omnipresent view of nearly all the family members, a sizable chunk of the novel’s voice is heard from the twins Rahel and Esthra – children when the story begins, devastated adults at the novel’s end.
Overall, I took pleasure in Roy’s writing style, but the prose can and does cross the realm of being irritatingly overwritten. The God of Small Things is deeply descriptive, lyrical, and lush. Roy turned her pen and her senses to describe absolutely everything. The season’s overripe mangoes get half-a-page worth of writing. It does get tiresome and The God of Small Things isn’t even a long novel. My edition is around 340 pages, but 40 pages of the book’s excessive detail could have been easily cut to produce a stronger novel: beautifully written and focused.
(Because dear god, sometimes I thought: right, can we get on with the actual story? Please?)
Despite my quibbles with the writing style, The God of Small Things is a rich novel, full of themes to unpack and beautiful imagery. A small note about the plot and climax, thought. Both are predictable. I guessed what happened to catalyze events into overdrive not even a quarter into reading the book. But no matter – I don’t think Roy was ever invested in the mystery either, it’s the themes, characters, and overall story that are emphasized.
Here’s a question: why hasn’t the BBC commissioned a miniseries on The God of Small Things? I mean, it’s got the stereotypical themes: class, colonialism, and more class. That alone should have gotten the agents talking.