Winner of the Booker Prize in 1997, ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy tells the story of twins Esthappen and Rahel and their extended family living in Ayemenem House in Kerala, southern India including their mother Ammu, their uncle Chacko, grandmother Mammachi, great aunt Baby Kochamma and Chacko’s daughter Sophie Mol. The plot focuses on multiple family tragedies, the most significant of which are the mystery surrounding the death of Sophie Mol and the family’s disapproval of Ammu’s lover Velutha because he is an Untouchable.
It has been a while since I read one of the less recent Booker Prize winning novels but I’m very glad I finally read this one. Although it is rooted in a traditional family saga, there are many other layers to the book including the historical and social consequences of the communist movement and the caste system in India. The story alternates between Estha and Rahel’s early childhood during the 1960s and their adulthood in the 1990s and the complex structure keeps the reader in suspense with Roy only revealing subtle details about the circumstances surrounding Sophie Mol’s death at the necessary moments.
Above all, this is a book for those who love language and metaphors. The thing that struck me most about ‘The God of Small Things’ is the way in which the imagery in Roy’s prose is so vividly intense and evocative but without being overdone. The opening sequence is the most obvious example of this but Roy’s inventiveness with words is evident throughout the rest of the book too and the scenes told through the eyes of the twins when they are children are particularly effective. There are some points where the vagueness of the plot and structure can be hard to follow, especially the parts in which the strands set in the past and present blend almost seamlessly into each other. However, even though much of the story is very bleak, there are elements of humour in some of the more detailed character studies and it is worth persevering to the end which offers a brief glimpse of happiness despite knowing by this point what the ultimate tragic fate of the characters will be.
Roy has focused on non-fiction work including environmental and human rights activism in more recent years and ‘The God of Small Things’ remains her only novel to date. It is definitely one of the more memorable and eloquently written Booker Prize winners I have come across so far and I think it is very likely to stand the test of time.