Amy’s Marginalia: The god of Small Things

godof-smallthingsAbout ten years ago, Arundhati Roy hit the literary scene with full force.  Her first novel, The god of Small Things, received an unheard of half a million pound advance.  It turns out, her publishers knew what they were doing, as the book won the prestigious Booker Prize and hung around on the New York Times Best Seller list for quite awhile.  Although it’s never gone out of popularity, it’s going through a bit of a re-surge, and Costco is selling it as one of its Buyer’s Picks right now.  Now you know where I got my copy.

I kept the title of the book purposefully miscapitalized. I didn’t want to capitalize the “g” in “god” because I didn’t want there to be any sort of hint that we were talking about the one and only God.  In fact, I was a little disappointed that the book didn’t have much to do with religion at all.  The title refers to a specific character, who gets renamed “The god of Small Things.”  And even when the name gets explained, the “god” part didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

At its core, The god of Small Things is an impossible love story.  Roy is challenging the caste system in India by creating a gifted, loveable untouchable who slowly becomes the center of the story.  The two main characters are twin children, Rahel and Esta, who are 7 years old for most of the story, but they are also 31 for part of it.  The twins live with their mother in India, with their uncle, aunt, and grandmother.  They are Syrian Christians, except the aunt, who is Roman Catholic. But their town and culture is diverse, linking Hindu traditions with a Communist government.

This book has troubled me a great deal, on multiple levels.  Some of it has been a good kind of bother.  I’m obsessed with how Roy can craft such unique descriptions.  She creates new words to depict things, and she also strings unusual combinations together, ones that I’d never consider.  I read one interview in which she claimed that her training as an architect compelled her to re-arrange words to create new structures.  The children in the book would often playfully reconstruct words: “‘Later’ became ‘Lay. Ter.’ ‘An owl’ became ‘A Nowl.’ ‘Sour metal smell’ became ‘sourmetal smell'” (Salon).

I’m also annoyed with the author, that she created a brilliant plot arrangement, without revising her drafts.  In fact, that really upsets me.  Doesn’t she know that all good authors revise their work? It’s the law, or something like that.  To simply write out a brilliant, non linear plot structure as you go, it defies all the ways writers are taught to write.

But some of the discomfort seemed unnecessary, over the top, and grotesque.  The book depicts the sexual abuse of a child, incest, graphic murder, and a highly erotic, albeit consensual, sex scene between adults.  This book isn’t light weight in any respect, and I wish I had a little more warning about the subjects artfully, yet openly, portrayed in the book.

That said, I don’t know if knowing this information in advance, I’d have avoided the book completely. There are many redemptive qualities, which is why it doubtless earned so much acclaim.  But some books, like this one, create difficult dilemmas.  They offer great rewards in total, but there are also some serious drawbacks to reading them as well.  I can’t in good conscience offer my ringing endorsement of it because I think its content was far too disturbing in some scenes.  But I also hope that my review helps you to make a more informed decision, when you notice that enticing copy sitting out on Costco’s book isle.

As always, if I recommend any books that you’d like to purchase, consider buying them through Amazon using the links on my site, so I get a percent of the purchase price back to buy more books to review!

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