Trapped within this horror is the beauty and strength of nature, the sweet innocence of childhood, the nurturing power of love and friendship. One trips for all of this to slip away, for it to unfurl irreparably into desperate strands.
Arundhati Roy's rich, humid fairy tale of a novel begins in June, when the monsoon rains send the province of Kerala, in southwestern India, into fecund frenzy:
The countryside turns an immodest green ... Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads.
Behind this lush life, however, something festers. Rahel Kochamma, one of the novel's twin protagonists, returns to her family home in the Kerali town of Ayemenem, and decay slithers out to greet her. The house walls "bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against glistening stone." This slithering overripeness hints at what's really rotten in Ayemenem : the past, specifically a chain of events set in motion on "a skyblue day in December sixty-nine (the nineteen silent)," when the twins' half-English cousin, Sophie Mol, came to visit. Two weeks later Sophie was dead, drowned in Ayemenem's river, leaving behind a shattered family and a terrible secret. The narrative eddies along toward the secret of Sophie's death, but ultimately it flows into the drowning depths of history. "
The God of Small Things" is a story of forbidden, cross-caste love and what a community will do to protect the old ways. The Kochamma family business, Paradise Pickles and Preserves, is emblematic of the theme. Ayemenem is practically pickled in history. Roy, an architect and screenwriter who grew up in Kerala, and a lot of good music capably shoulders the burdens of caste and tradition, a double weight that crushes some of her characters and warps others, but leaves none untouched.
Roy takes up classic material, but she delights in verbal innovation and stylistic tricks. She runs words together -- "thunderdarkness," "echoing stationsounds" -- and plucks nouns from verbs and verbs from thin air. And she has hit on a striking way of getting at a child's point of view (told in third person, the story unfolds more or less as young Rahel and Estha experience it). When her mother tells a rambunctious Rahel to "Stoppit," Rahel "stoppited." At Sophie's funeral, a bat alights on a mourner: "the singing stopped for a 'Whatisit?' 'Whathappened?' and for a Furrywhirring and a Sariflapping." -- reminds one of the artistry of John Lennon.
Sweet and heartbreaking, ribald and profound, this is a novel sure to invite comparisons with the work of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, while remaining distinctly singular. At times it feels as though you've dropped into a faux Rushdie novel, with cartwheeling corpses and talking statues. Mostly, though, Roy's verbal exuberance is all her own, and it makes "The God of Small Things" a real pleasure. History's lessons may be bitter, but Roy serves them up fresh, pungent and delicious.
Last modified 4 June 2001