Reading a book that you end up not enjoying is disappointing enough but it feels extra disappointing when you’re able to see the possibilities of how good that book could have been. The God of Small Things was that kind of read for me.
The story follows twin brother and sister, Estha and Rahel, and is set in India in the 1960s. (At least, most of the action is set in India in the 1960s. The present tense in the novel is later but most of the story is told through flashbacks to the twins’ early childhood.) Estha and Rahel are linked in that mysterious way only twins seem to be, hardly differentiating themselves from one another in their own minds. Their parents are divorced and they have moved back in, along with their mother Ammu, to her family’s home. There they live with their grandmother Mammachi, their strange and creepy great-aunt Baby Kochamma, and their (also divorced but less scandalous because he’s a man) uncle Chacko. While the story is mostly told up close to the twins’ perspective, we do also get glimpses further back into their family history, which illuminate the twisted turns that brought the twins into the world and to their present day state.
The present tense setting of the novel begins when Rahel comes back to their home after many years away. Their mother is dead and Estha has been “re-returned” from their father’s house. We are told that the twins were split up years ago and haven’t seen each other since and that Estha has stopped speaking. The key to why this is lies in their childhood, where the primary action of the novel is. Centred around a visit from Chacko’s English ex-wife and their daughter, Sophie Mol. This visit is where everything finally fell apart.
This is all very promising and the book is full of instances of really lovely writing. The language and descriptions Roy uses when telling the story from the twins’ very young perspective are spot-on and delightfully unique. My problem was that she latches on to a unique manner of description or a turn-of-phrase and that repeats it so much that it feels beaten to death and loses all novelty.
But my major problem with the novel is that it’s almost all tease. We know that something horrible happens during Sophie Mol’s visit. We know it involves the twins somehow and a man they love, a local named Velutha who belongs to the Untouchable caste. We are reminded of these things almost constantly and so when the reveal comes it loses much of the punch it might have had. So much has been teased to us that there isn’t much left to reveal. I think that if the story had been told in a more straight-forward chronological manner, it actually would have been more powerful.
And, I have to say, the final conclusion between Estha and Rahel did not make sense to me. Without giving anything away – it’s clearly meant to be shocking but I don’t think the author “earned” it. By which I mean, it feels like a shocking action simply to shock, instead of coming naturally (if unexpectedly and uncomfortably) out of everything that’s happened.
This book certainly has its fans (it won the Booker Prize after all) so it would seem that many others are able to enjoy the spots of beautiful writing and look past the weaknesses, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t.
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