“The God of Small Things” – Arundhati Roy (3/5 ★)

It’s quite difficult to put the reading experience of “The God of Small Things” in words because it was marked by so many ups & downs for me. To start with the positive parts first, I would describe reading “The God of Small Things” with the sensation of stepping into a mystic maze. A place where you roam around tentatively, not knowing what awaits you around the corner, set in a soft, dreamy and “creamy” kind of atmosphere (stealing that last expression from one of my fellow book club participants since it simply fits perfectly as an explanation 😀 ). It reminded me of the feeling I have when drinking milky oolong tea, being immersed in its soft taste and a smell that cocoons you in. From the very first page on (as you can see in the quote below), you’re instantly immersed in this weird and different kind of world.

“The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives.” (p. 1)

“He rang for room service, and a tired bearer came to take away the plates and bones. He tried to catch the diner smells but they escaped and climbed into the limp brown curtains.” (p. 116)

“When they grew tired of waiting, the dinner smells climbed off the curtains and drifted through the Sea Queen windows to dance the night away on the dinner-smelling sea.” (p. 123)

Moving on to some more ambiguous aspects – I had to put the book down twice before finally finishing it on a third attempt, only after suggesting it as a pick for one of my book clubs and being imposed with a deadline. It took me quite a while to get into the book (about 100 pages), I then again lost interest about 3/4ths in and the ending somehow didn’t fit to the style of the rest of the book. I feel like you need to create a lot of uninterrupted space in time to read attentively with a strong, uninterrupted focus because of how intricate the plot is. There are a lot of jumps back and forth in the chronology of the story, the language is very poetic & experimental and to me there was quite a big amount of characters the story circled around. Regardless all these challenges, I did love the story and its particular style, which made me settle on a 3/5 ★ rating. I did enjoy many parts, it has become one of my favourite books “style-wise” but it’s not a book I would recommend to each and everyone.

The language of “The God of Small Things” is experimental, abstract, unusual and very sensory, meaning that the descriptions not only touch upon visual references but also sensory and auditive impressions. Inanimate objects are brought to life in surprising ways again and again which makes you want to re-read many different passages. This book manages to nevertheless do both, collect some of the most beautiful phrases I’ve read in a book, but also to “overdo” the creative writing. While reading, you might get saturated at some point. I myself noticed that I marked out specific quotes throughout the first third of the book but at some point it somehow got too much. Here are a few picked out examples of the beauty of some descriptions to illustrate the style better:

“The silence dipped and soared and swooped and looped in figures of eight.
Jewelled dragonflies hovered like shrill children’s voices in the sun.” (p. 202)

“Estha imagined that something in him smiled. Not his mouth, but some other unhurt part of him. His elbow perhaps. Or shoulder.” (p. 320)

“She touched him lightly with her fingers and left a trail of goosebumps on his skin. Like flat chalk on a blackboard. Like breeze in a paddyfield. Like jet-streaks in a blue church sky.” (p. 339)

What made the reading experience more difficult and less enjoyable for me, was my lack of background knowledge on the Indian culture in general. The names of dishes didn’t say anything to me at all, the nicknames used for people didn’t have a deeper meaning, so I definitely had trouble connecting to the story. I feel like people that have a link to that culture might get much more out of the book, in my case it was really challenging though. Below a couple of examples of what exactly I mean by that:

“Chacko was driving. He was four years older than Ammu. Rahel and Estha couldn’t call him Chachen because when they did, he called them Chetan and Cheduthi. If they called him Ammaven he called them Appoi and Ammai. If they called him Uncle he called them Aunty, which was embarassing in Public. So they called him Chacko.” (p. 37)

“They were all there – the deaf ammoomas, the cantankerous, arthritic appoopans, the pining wives, scheming uncles, children with the runs.” (p. 138)

” ‘What does she pretend to be?’ Rahel asked.
‘Oh… a little church-going ammooma, quiet and clean… idi appams for breakfast, kanji and meen for lunch. Minding her own business. Not looking right or left.’ ” (p. 210)

Another thing that I struggled with, was the amount of “main characters” that appeared in the story. This is also what probably made me put the book down twice, when I constantly kept getting lost in who is who. It is only upon the third reading attempt that I have written out a list of all the characters and even drew up a little map, that I felt I finally got it. This might be very personal though, since I easily get overwhelmed when the author throws a bunch of characters at you in the very beginning of the book. I might also have been a bit impatient to want to understand everything and everyone from the very beginning on, since the characters do grow on you and become more familiar the longer you read.

I would suggest to approach this book with a completely open mind and during a time when you can concetrate well when reading, when you wouldn’t have too many interruptions or distractions. It would also help out a lot to plan to read in bigger chunks (around 100 pages at once, reading the entire book in 3-4 sittings max), rather than in many but short reading sessions. This is a book that’s beautiful in its own kind of way, so if your curiosity has been sparked, do give it a try.
To finish off this review, I still have quite a few quotes that I would love to share because I found them so special but feel free to skip over this last part if you have already had enough throughout the review 😉

“She thought of what would happen if the rope snapped. She imagined him dropping like a dark star out of the sky that he had made. Lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret.” (p. 6)

“Once the quietness arrived, it stayed and spread in Estha. It reached out of his head and enfolded him in its swampy arms. It rocked him to the rhythm of an ancient, fetal heartbeat. It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles inching along the insides of his skull, hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue. […] Slowly, over the years, Estha withdrew from the world, he grew accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past. Gradually the reason for his silence was hidden away, entombed somewhere deep in the soothing folds of the fact of it. […]
As Khubchand [his dog] lay dying on his cushion, Estha could see the bedroom window reflected in his smooth, purple balls. And the sky beyond. And once a bird that flew across. […] A bird in flight reflected in an old dog’s balls. It made him smile out loud.” (p. 12)

“Rahel drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge. With a Sitting Down sense.” (p. 18)

“Rahel’s new teeth were waiting inside her gums, like words in a pen.” (p. 37)

“Baby Kochamma’s fear lay rolled up on the car floor like a damp, clammy cheroot. […]
‘Ammu,’ Chacko said, his voice steady and deliberately casual, ‘is it at all possible for you to prevent your washed-up cynicism from completely colouring everything?’
Silence filled the car like a saturated sponge. ‘Washed up’ cut like a knife through a soft thing. The sun shone with a shuddering sigh. This was the trouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they knew just where it hurt.” (p. 70)

“The silence gathered its skirts and slid, like Spiderwoman, up the slippery bathroom wall.” (p. 93)

“The slow ceiling fan sliced the thick, frightened air into an unending spiral that spun slowly to the floor like the peeled skin of an endless potato.” (p. 132)

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Edition: ISBN 978-0-00-655068-6
4th Estate, 2017

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