The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews The
God of Small Things
by
Arundhati Roy.
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

How unfortunate that this crisp, multivalent novel is so often
weighed down with that infelicitous label: post-colonial fiction.
Whenever I hear that MLA-ish term, I
instinctively conjure up the image of a
British Beefeater in full regalia exiled to a
closet at the rear of the stage. Here our
post-colonialist listens on as scenes unfold,
no longer playing a role in the story, but
tainting it nonetheless by his unwieldy
presence.

But
The God of Small Things by Arundhati
Roy needs no yeoman of the guard to sharpen
the pointedness of its narrative.  Matters of caste, class, upbringing
and gender loom even larger here than the lingering aftertaste of
imperialism, as do the four extreme possibilities of the human
condition, as outlined by one of Roy’s characters. “Anything’s
possible in human nature,” muses Chacko, a Rhodes Scholar who
has become a struggling manufacturer of pickles and condiments:
“Love, Madness, Hope, Infinite joy.”

Love—both found and lost, carnal and spiritual—drives almost
every character in this book. In Roy’s words, the players on her
stage build their own individual and collective tragedies by ignoring
the “Love Laws” that “lay down who should be loved. And how. And
how much.” And though her protagonists enjoy a small taste (in this
book of small things) of Hope and Infinite joy, it is Madness that
holds the upper hand. Crimes also play a part in The God of Small
Things, and imagined crimes, but even more guilt and (perhaps the
most terrible taskmaster of all) imagined guilt.

The cast is surprisingly large for such a small, intimate book. Roy
introduces ten key characters in the first five pages—I found that I
needed to lay down the novel and draw a family tree before I
finished chapter one. I am happy to relate that she stops adding new
names before we reach Gabriel García Márquez proportions. Even
so, this book spans three generations and three continents, and
sometimes moves with blinding speed across the miles and years.

The story revolves around two turbulent weeks in the lives of seven-
year-old twins, the boy Estha and his sister Rahel. The youngsters
feel shunted aside by their relatives in the excitement surrounding
the visit to Ayemenem (based on Aymanam in Kottayam District,
Kerala, India) of their Uncle Chacko’s ex-wife Margaret Kochamma
and his daughter Sophie Mol.  During the course of a few days
almost every character faces some tragedy that is linked to the
unwitting actions of the twins. The results include ruptured
relationships, class conflicts, a fatal accident and even a violent
murder.

Roy plays deft games with the chronological unfolding of her tale.
She flashes forward to the twins as adults, still struggling with the
aftermath of childhood events; or she shifts back to scenes of Uncle
Chacko at Oxford or the twins’ grandfather’s career as an “Imperial
Entomologist.” The major components of her plot are foreshadowed
long before the specific details emerge, and continue to reverberate
in later pages. Yet some of the key elements of the story are
withheld until the very end, imparting an odd, ethereal sensibility to
the story. The reader both knows what is going to happen, but also
doesn’t know. I can’t recall a recent novel in which the layering of
the particulars of the plot is handled with greater virtuosity.

This kaleidoscopic splintering of events is made all the more
impressive by Roy’s decision to present much of the story as filtered
through the perspective of the twins. The novel is in the third
person, but the narrative voice is often infused with the wide-eye
wonderment of a young mind. Sometimes a misheard phrase or
misunderstood concept creates a surprising metaphor or even
changes how the world is encountered. The odd, and sometimes
brutal ways in which the world of adults and children interface is one
of the key themes of the book, sometimes treated with humor, at
other times with pathos.

Then there is the sheer beauty of Roy’s writing. True to the title of
the book—whose meaning also shifts with the passing pages—this
novelist can bring out the poetry in even the smallest things. Anthills
are “congealed in the rain . . . slumped like drugged sentries asleep at
the gates of Paradise.” The rain on the roof is a “lonely drummer
practicing his roll long after the rest of the band has gone to bed.”
Birds on wires seen through the windows of a moving car, slide by
“like unclaimed baggage at the airport.”

At times, the writing comes close to a showy preciousness. There
were a few passages that seemed a little too flashy when placed
amidst the perceptions of the young twins. But it is easy to forgive a
writer who can put together such fine sentences, with powerful
cadences, and so many sweet surprises.

And the novel itself, despite the horror of its central story, also
closes on a lyrical note. The effect is almost akin to a rewinding of a
film back to a moment before all the terrible things happened, and a
lingering on that beauty of small things that contributes so much to
this book’s allure. What a shame that, more than a decade after it
was published,
The God of Small Things is still Arundhati Roy's only
published novel.

No, the term “post-colonial” does not do justice to this bittersweet
book.  Let the Beefeater out of the closet; he can go home now. Yes,
with some effort you can twist this story to suit whatever ideological
message you choose—every constituency from the Maoists to the
Catholics is skewered at some point in its pages, including the
colonialists.  But please don’t try to make
The God of Small Things
into a novel about One Big Thing. That would have been a much
easier book to write, and a less interesting one to read. Arundhati
Roy has instead given us something more delicate and nuanced, that
it would be best not to label at all.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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