The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [Booker Prize]
The God of Small Things, the debut novel by Arundhati Roy, sparked a hoo-ha when it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 1979.
A lawyer from Kerala (Roy’s home state in India and the setting for the book) filed a complaint of obscenity against the author. Reviews in the USA were extremely positive but those in the UK, less so.
The Chairman of the Booker judges, Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge praised the book for its ”extraordinary linguistic inventiveness” but some commentators said it was too popularist. One previous Booker judge called the novel “execrable” and The Guardian newspaper labelled it “profoundly depressing”.
Was I reading a completely different novel to the one read by the UK critics?
I’d agree that The God of Small Things is not an ‘uplifting’ book. It’s one you read it with a sense of sadness for the characters whose lives take a turn for the worse. But depressing? No way. It’s thoughtful, insightful and an often funny tale of the decline and fall of the dysfunctional Kochamma family who “tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.”
As for the allegation of ‘popularism’ I’d be mightily offended by that if I were the author for it’s a term that suggests a kind of book that can be read without taxing the brain too much whereas Roy’s novel is full of ideas and questions about the caste system, communism and family loyalty. Added to this are the insights we gain into aspects of life in Kerala including the growth of Communism and the tradition of the Kathakali dance.
The God of Small Things opens with one of the members of the Kochamma family returning to her childhood home at Ayemenen House in Kerala at the southernmost tip of India.
This is where Rahel (one half of the Kochamma “two-egg twins” ) lived for seven years with her brother Estha and their proud, beautiful mother Ammu who bears the stain of a divorce from her alcoholic, violent husband. Other residents include the twins’ blind grandmother Mammachi, their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, serial womaniser) and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma.
Ayemenen House was once an elegant property befitting the proprietors of a successful chutney and pickle business but by the time of Rahel’s return the gardens are overgrown, the windows are filthy, the corpses of insects litter the rooms and grease dulls the shine of the doorknobs. The only occupants are Baby Kochamma, now a fat old woman who spends her days sprawled on a sofa watching soap operas beamed in via a huge satellite dish, her maid and Estha, now a young man who refuses to speak.
It’s Estha that Rahel has come to visit. They were inseparable as children, thinking of themselves
… together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
For the first seven years of their life they rode above the antagonisms and tensions of the household with a blend of affection and inexhaustible energy. But when Chacko decides to bring his estranged wife and his daughter Sophie Mol to Ayemenen for Christmas, the twins are jolted into a realisation that their mother’s love cannot be taken for granted. Their ensuing jealousy of Sophie Mol has tragic consequences.
Twenty-five years have passed since Rahel and Estha last saw each other. It the night Sophie drowned in a river. What happened that night, what part the twins played and why Sophie’s death had such damaging consequences for the family is something we learn only in fragments “resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.”
Roy’s reconstruction of the past is a circuitous one, told via flashbacks and foreshadowings whose significance becomes apparent only when all the strands come together at the end of the novel.
It could make for a deeply frustrating read but what captivated me and sustained my interest throughout was the exuberance of the characters and the richness of the writing itself.
The twins’ private language is a case in point. They love all forms of word play, including reading backwards, but particularly the one where they take words and phrases uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version.
Instructed for example to be good ‘Ambassadors of India’, when they meet Sophie Mol at the airport, they instantly adopt new titles as ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis’ (reflecting Estha’s love of pointy shoes and quiffed hairstyle) and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’ (for the moth discovered by her father that flutters in Rahel’s heart).
On the way home they give a rendition of the song they’ve been taught to sing in welcome:
RejOice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orlways
And Again I say re-jOice
Their Prer NUN sea ayshun was perfect
This is writing that dances and sparkles with nonsensical rhymes, jokes and rogue capital letters that perfectly capture the effervescent nature of the twins, often with tremendous comic effect.
The twins of course are at the heart of the novel. It is their reaction to Sophie Mol’s visit that provide the impetus for Sophie’s death and for a revelation about their mother’s love affair with Velutha, an Untouchable, that will be her and her family’s undoing.
But my favourite character is Baby Kochamma, a woman who in her youth fell in love with a Roman Catholic priest and converted to his faith to try and win him. Embittered by her failure she degenerates into a mean, resentful figure who loves nothing more than stirring up trouble for everyone else. So determined is she to protect her family’s reputation from the shame of Ammu’s forbidden love, that she fabricates a story that Velutha is a rapist and a child abductor just so he can be got out of the way.
The grossness of this woman’s mind is matched by her physical presence.
In the old house on the hill Baby Kochamma sat at the dining table rubbing the thick, frothy bitterness out of an elderly cucumber. She was wearing a limp, checked, seersucker nightgown with puffed sleeves and yellow turmeric stains. Under the tale she swing her tiny, manicured feet, like a small child on a high chair. They were puffy with oedema like little foot-shaped air cushions. …
She was eighty three. Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses. … Her hair, dyed jetblack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had staine the skin of her forehead a pale grey, giving her a shadowy second hairline. .. A sly touch of rouge. And because the house was locked and dark and because she only believed in 40 watt bulbs, her lipstick mouth had shifted slightly off her real mouth.
With characterisation this glorious, with language that dances and dazzles and with a story that mingles sadness with joy, The God of Small Things has become one of the best novels I’ve read all year.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy : Footnotes
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy was published by Flamingo in the UK in 1997. It went on to win the Booker Prize in 1997, was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year that same year and reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction. In 2022 it was selected for the The Big Jubilee Read, 70 books from around the Commonwealth chosen to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
The book is semi-autobiographical, reflecting Arundhati Roy’s childhood experiences in Aymanam, Kerala. Though its success gave her financial security she turned her back on fiction writing to devote herself to political activism. She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.
Twenty years after her first novel, she published her second: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2017. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.
43 thoughts on “The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [Booker Prize]”
I’m so surprised a major reviewer described The God of Small Things as depressing when it was first published, Karen. I read it back then, and all these years later my lasting impression is of an upbeat child narrator with a joyful way with words. So I found your review – plus the brilliant extract you chose – extremely interesting!
There is obviously an element of the novel that isn’t upbeat but like you my overwhelming memory is the joyfulness of those children
I agree with you, I didn’t find it depressing. I think if it was published today there wouldn’t be so much negativity about it.
Sometimes I read a review and wonder if I had read the same book as the reviewer – our views seem to differ so much
That sounds interesting and poignant and from what you said in review, I don’t see why it is banned in India.
There seem to be a section of society in India who are never happier than when they are campaigning to get something banned
Not read this but, Karen, as often happens with your reviews, I’m tempted – you make an excellent case for it. Thoughtful and detailed with interesting if flawed characters, sounds my kind of thing!
the characterisation is superb – actually the best part of the novel
I read this when I was about 14 and at the time I didn’t like it at all, but reading your review I think I was perhaps too young – very tempted to give it another go now! Thanks for prompting me to reconsider it.
Yes your youth might have been a factor. Sometimes though the book doesn’t quite fit the mood of the moment
I remember reading about half of this when it first came out. I was enjoying it, so can’t remember why I abandoned it. It seems I need to go back and finish the job.
It does sound odd that you stopped reading it if you were actually enjoying it.
Great throwback choice. I have this on my Around the World list and you make a convincing case for me to move it up in priority!
I loved the mix of humour and seriousness. The kids are a hoot
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It’s a good one, isn’t it? So glad you liked it! I enjoyed your review of it very much. There are always rumors she is writing a new novel but nothing has appeared yet. Here nonfiction is very good but nothing like her fiction.
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Oh yes, Karen. I love this. It’s a long time since I’ve read this, but my memory aligns more with your reaction than some recent ones I’ve heard – it was discussed on a radio bookclub here last year (or the year before – my how time flies) and the discussion was more along the depressing etc lines. I was mystified and thinking my memory had completely failed me. Of course it’s a serious novel, and some ugly things happen, but I didn’t recollect finding it depressing.
Nice review! I think my review of The God of Small Things comes across a bit negative, but that’s partly because it is difficult to discuss the things I liked the most without giving too much away. It has probably grown on me as time has gone on as well. The things I enjoyed like the language, the mystery, have stayed with me, while the things I did not have faded in memory. I think I said in my review that it would not be among my favourite Booker winners, but now I think it might be. You are right that there have been weaker winners.
I wouldn’t have said your review was negative but yes it was a difficult book to write about and I’m conscious I left out a lot
I loved it when I read it when it first came out and was amazed by how hostile some readers were about it. I also think it’s quite fascinating that she turned her back on writing for political activism. Although I think she’s got another book (fiction) out soonish which I’m really looking forward to reading.
She does indeed have a new book coming out in June Victoria. I dont understand why people were so sniffy about this either. There have been far far weaker books that have won the prize
Reading this review reminds me of how viscerally I hated that Baby Kochamma. I remember this book very fondly because this is the first Booker prize winning novel I read. Previously I used to think Booker winners (or nominees) were too high-level and not for me. This is the book that started me on my Booker journey.
P.S. Roy has a new book coming out this year. I just can’t wait to get to it.
She was certainly a mean old biddy throughout but when I got to the end and found how she had manipulated the situation I was aghast
mean old biddy – that’s the perfect description 🙂
I am glad you enjoyed the book. This is one of my favourite novels and is set in my hometown. I cannot wait to read Arundhati Roy’s new novel releasing in June.
One of my friends comes from Kerala and she didnt feel the dialogue sounded authentic – said she thought it had been westernised. But from your comment I take it you had so issue?
No, I did not have any issue. Infact I felt the opposite – that the language, way of life, local songs, local pronunciations etc were very much authentic and not westernised. When Roy writes about the theatre Abhilash talkies and the crass dialect of policemen etc, I felt it brought alive the actual life of Kottayam town (Ayemanam is in Kottayam) that I have seen.
The scene in the cinema was simply outstanding. I could visualise it so clearly
I read this book some time ago. I loved it. Great review. You really did a good job of putting this book into its publishing context
Thanks for those kind comments – they’ve given me a lovely boost for the day
This is one of the Bookers with a long shelf-life (pardon the pun). One of the best, most memorable, and most illuminating. Even the obscenity case revealed to the rest of the world just how deep-seated Indian caste-consciousness was.
Indian lawyers seem to relish opportunities to shout ‘obscenity’ even when it doesnt cross caste lines….
*chuckle* See what happens when the British legal system gets a toehold…
So glad you got to this one and loved it! It was a near miss for my top three Bookers of all time. So achingly beautiful!
At last we found a book on which we can both agree was stunning!
It’s a very long time since I read this – probably around the time it won the Booker, but I loved it. Definitely thought provoking.
I loved how some elements of the story only fell into place and made sense late on
Thanks for the review, definitely a book I’ll get to.
I read this years and years ago – probably around the time it got published. I indeed remember it as a very positive book, and by no means depressing! Your review brought back a lot of the memories!
I’m absolutely baffled why anyone would see this as depressing. Anyway, it’s fiction not real life so I’m not going to go around with a sad face just because of something that happened in a novel