Tuesday, April 20, 2021

the last book I read

The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Rahel and Estha (a girl and a boy, respectively) are fraternal twins. A bit like Topsy and Tim, only in Kerala, India, and without their Mum looking like the lead singer of Showaddywaddy

We meet the twins' extended family and get some of their back-story: mother Ammu is a feisty and hot-headed character who rebelled against her parents' wishes for her at a young age and ran off to Calcutta, where she entered into a hasty and short-lived marriage with a man who turned out to be an alcoholic, and which ended with her returning to the family home with the twins. We meet Ammu's brother, Chacko, who also flew the nest as a teenager and took up a place at Oxford, marrying an English woman, Margaret, and having a daughter, Sophie. This marriage too is fairly brief and Chacko returns to the family home. Ammu and Chacko's parents die and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma takes over as stereotypical interfering Indian matriarch

The twins have that sort of weird ultra-close semi-telepathic relationship that twins sometimes have, and live in their own little fantasy world. Meanwhile the family business producing fruity pickles rumbles on being intermittently profitable and occasionally falling foul of trade union activity and political activism. 

Things bimble along until several events happen at once. Ammu begins an ill-fated relationship with a local man, Velutha, a worker at the family pickle factory and an untouchable. Chacko's ex-wife Margaret's second husband, Joe, dies in a car crash and she and Sophie come to India to visit Chacko. Sophie strikes up a friendship with the twins. Ammu's forbidden relationship with Velutha comes to light and she is locked in her room in the family house. In her rage at being locked up, harsh words are exchanged between her and the twins, and they decide to run away; Sophie insists on coming with them. The group take a boat across the local river and it capsizes; the twins swim to safety but Sophie drowns. As a result of a vexatious complaint raised by Baby Kochamma after discovering Ammu's affair, the police come to Velutha's house (where the twins are also hiding out), beat him to within an inch of his life and drag him off to a cell (where he subsequently dies). Rahel remains in the family home but Estha is sent away to live with his father. 

Fast-forward to twenty-odd years later and Rahel and Estha's paths intersect again at the family home, where Baby Kochamma is still alive (just) - Estha has been sent back after his father retired and emigrated to Australia, and Rahel has returned after marrying and living in America for many years. Can they come to terms with everything that happened, after not having seem each other since the immediate aftermath of Sophie's death?

So, a family saga with some tragic elements, you'll be saying, all relatively straightforward. Well, not so much, because the story is a fractured series of episodes presented in non-chronological order, with the central events (Ammu's disgrace and Sophie's death) presented as already having happened in some of them, without us knowing any of the details. We only get a full account of what happened right at the end, and each chapter is presented with a challenge implicitly attached to it: where does this episode fit?

The God Of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997, not without some controversy. All I can say is that the only other book I've read from that year's shortlist is Jim Crace's Quarantine, which I would have no hesitation at all in saying is a better book. That's certainly not to say that The God Of Small Things is a bad book, though some of the fractured timeline stuff did seem to carry a whiff of First Novel-itis, i.e. the desire to show originality and complexity at the expense of just relaxing, getting over yourself and telling the story you're trying to tell. I wasn't sure what the purpose of the twenty-years-later framing device was, either, since the twins don't really do anything except mooch around barely talking to each other until right at the end when they decide to Do An Incest for reasons which aren't very clear. The Picture Palace review had a round-up of literary incest previously featured on this blog. 

Previous novels on this list which have primarily taken place in India include Midnight's Children, A New Dominion and The Siege Of Krishnapur, with minor sub-plot episodes featuring in The Marriage Plot and Around The World In Eighty Days. Since Midnight's Children seems to be the benchmark here, let me say that despite The God Of Small Things being far from perfect, I enjoyed it considerably more. 

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