Friday, May 20, 2005

The God of Small Things - Book review by Lezah

When I was in university, I had to (as you might imagine) read a ton of books - some I was happy to read, while others...

Some books that I never would have read on my own I initially slogged through only to, upon reflection, realize I really did like them; others I never learned to like. ' The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist' is one example of the former, while 'Mill on the Floss' is an example of the latter.  And, no doubt, sometimes the professor and the assignments connected with them had more than a little to do with how I ultimately felt about the books.

But, even though I have always loved reading, I was completely burned out after I graduated.  I still had an obsessive need to read, but I found I had a really hard time picking up anything too heavy or thought-provoking.  I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I plowed through my whole Trixie Belden collection right after graduation, and made the leap from there to Dick Francis stories.  After that I began exploring the mystery/suspense genre in depth (everything from Patricia Cornwall to Ruth Rendall).  But lately, I feel like I have recovered my wits somewhat, and have been delving back into books that offer a bit more intellectual content and/or style.

So, under the category of Lezah's Obsession #345 is the Booker Prize, the well respected award that is granted each year to the top book written by a British citizen or member of a Commonwealth country.  Two years ago I read Booker winner 'Possession', and have read a number of other Booker winners and finalists lately.  My latest goal is to read as many Booker winners and finalists as I can.  

Most recently, I read Arundhati Roy's debut novel 'The God of Small Things'.  The book is not only the first Indian-written book to win the Booker Prize, but also the first Indian novel to garner a million dollar book deal.  An international best seller, 'The God of Small Things' is a partially autobiographic novel centred on a tragedy that befalls a relatively well-to-so Syrian Christian family living in a semi-rural area in southern India.  It weaves a tale between the past and the present, snaking between the lives of the individual members of this dysfunctional family, their relationships with each other and those who live near them.  It looks at the dangers of India's caste system and resultant social stratification, the fragile relationships between children and adults, and many other issues than exist between people and  in societies:  prejudices, jealousies, customs and mores, corruption and hypocrisy.

The novel is very stylized, and is told from the point of view of a seven year old girl, a dizygotic twin who has an especially close relationship with her twin brother.  Through a series of flashbacks, we see the story of the small event which changes everyone's lives.  Small events, small gods, small things, small children - all are recurring themes in this novel.  Roy also utilizes a rich imagery to describe the rural Indian backdrop:

        "May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month.  The days are long and humid.  The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dust green trees.  Red bananas ripen.  Jackfruits burst.  Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air.  Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.  The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.  But in early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with.  The countryside turns an immodest green.  Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom.  Brick walls turn moss green.  Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads."

Roy employs an almost whimsical use of language, bending and stretching it at her will.  Words like 'sicksweet' and 'thunderdarkness' have been created - and they work, in this context.  The prose is dense, echoing the vegetation in the setting.

The novel begins with the narrator, the adult Rahel, returning to her childhood home.  But home is not the same as it once was:  decay has set in, perhaps from neglect and misuse, but more probably stemming from the tragedy that happened long ago which separated Rahel from her twin.  The twenty-three years that have passed have changed the twins:  Estha, the boy, as turned inward and refuses to speak; Rahel, the girl, has turned outward and drifted, literally, around the world.  Neither are complete.

Their family is fractured; people have died.  Small things have happened to small people that have had earth-shattering repercussions to the lives of these characters and those around them.  Things can never go back and be as they once were, but can they be healed?  Once you live through a traumatic event such as this, can you be whole again?  It's a universal question that reaches far beyond the little rural Indian village in which this story is set.

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