Thursday, September 18, 2014

"The God of Small Things"

I love books with beautiful sentences and Arudhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) is simply full of them.

It's the story of fraternal twins, Estha and Rahel, who return to their childhood home in Ayemenem to remember and sort out what happened to them, to their cousin, Sophie Mol, and to their mother, Ammu, years before.

Roy's sentences are lyrical and elliptical, but also startlingly simple and direct.  She has clearly mastered the art of verbal cadence, and the ability to suggest more than is written.
Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons.  Short creatures with long shadows, patrolling the Blurry End.  Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu was when she died.  Thirty-one.

Not old.
Not young.
But a viable die-able age. 
Her style is further enhanced by the structure of the novel's plot.  Roy interweaves past and present, blurring the boundaries between what happened "then" and what is happening "now" and complicating the reader's sense of everything that happened in between then and now.

This works particularly well for Roy's story, which focuses on the complex roles that colonialism, Marxism, Christianity and globalization have played in India's history.  The novel opens with the scene of Sophie Mol's funeral, and as the novel unfolds, readers are forced to return to that initial scene, to try to make sense of what they read--what they thought they were witnessing.

The tragedy of Sophie Mol's death becomes a far more complicated thing than the reader can anticipate, and Roy's skill revolves around her ability to keep events from the past central to her novel's lyrical exploration of family, identity and the accidents of history.

Who is "The God of Small Things"?  That is the question the novel repeatedly returns to, as characters confront both events and individuals:
...the Air was full of Thought and Things to Say.  But at times like these, only the Small Things are even said.  The Big Things lurk unsaid inside (136)
Roy's novel cleverly focuses on how to suggest the Big Things that "lurk unsaid inside" by describing the "Small Things" that are said and done by Estha and Rahel when they are children.

And, perhaps more importantly, it suggests that the things of life and of history--both the big and the small--are intertwined in memory in ways that are never simple, direct, straightforward or chronological.
It is unreasonable to expect a person to remember what she didn't know had happened.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."