The God of Small Things is a book about love. It is a book about who can love and who can’t love, and the terrible things that happen when the love laws are broken.
The story is told from the perspective of ‘two-egg twins’ Rahel and Esthappen and tells the story of their family, broken by tragedy and forbidden love. In the beginning we learn of the death of Sophie Mol, their English cousin, though it is not until later that we learn how that death happened. Present at the funeral are the children, their mother Ammu, their uncle Chacko (and father of Sophie Mol), Sophie Mol’s mother Margaret Kochamma, their Grand-Aunt Baby Kochamma and Grandmother Mammachi who founded and owns a local factory, Paradise Pickles. Ammu and her small children are separate, in disgrace, and shortly after the funeral Estha is ‘Returned’ to his absent father, the twins separated. All this is revealed in the beginning, and the rest of the story shows how their lives unravelled to this point then how it went on, ghostly, thereafter.
The God of Small Things is a story told in flashbacks and fragments. Rahel, who has spent some time in America, been married, then returns to her family home in Ayemenem is a grown woman. A ‘viable die-able age’. Her brother, Estha, has also returned but is curiously and unequivocally silent. Baby Kochamma, their unmarried Aunt who has spent her whole life in longing for an Irish priest, Father Mulligan, has left the house to go to ruin. Mammachi is dead. Ammu too. Chacko is gone. The house is full of ghosts.
Then there is Velutha, the ‘untouchable’ whose ghost has haunted the twins for their entire lives.
The unravelling of the twins’ stories, the story of their family, makes for a fascinating, horrifying and beautiful read. Roy spins the story masterfully. She wraps it up in lush, beautiful language, revealing not too much and not too little. The breaking of the love laws is written with constrained passion, and is all the more beautiful for it. The book is also funny, full of character, whilst revealing the harsher side of life with an honest and unflinching eye. In the course of the novel, Roy uncovers the brutality of the police; the inequity of the position of the ‘untouchables’, condemned by the caste system to something less than a human life; the danger of unrequited love and the equal danger of requiting it when love is forbidden. It highlights the difficult position for women, the guilt of betrayal, the complexities of social order and disorder. It is a complex and challenging book, but despite this surprisingly easy to read. I felt myself drawn in by the characters, their life and vivacity. I found myself hating some of them (Baby Kochamma: infuriating) and yet sympathising. And though terrible things have happened, in the end there is love and though it may have been forbidden it has at least been expressed. Somehow that seems to be important.
It is impossible to describe this book. It is sad and terrifying, it is colourful and funny. It is depressing and uplifting. It gives us a vision of India seen through the tragic lives of one family, a family torn to pieces by love. Strange as that might seem.
The God of Small Things receives a stunning 9 out of 10 Biis.