“The God of Small Things”

June 25, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I’ve finished my second novel in my quest to read all the Booker Prize winners (I read eight before I started this odyssey). The latest one was one was The God of Small Things written by Arundhati Roy. Published in 1997, it won the Booker the same year.

This is just a mini-review as I’m still processing the book. To avoid spoilers, I’ll be brief.

The plot involves a pair of fraternal twins (boy and girl) growing up in Kerala, India in the 1960s in an extended family of Christians.  The story, which jumps back and forth in time over about 25 years, touches on many aspects of Indian life, including the Communism of Kerala (India’s only Communist state), the caste system—still very much alive then, and the ambiguity of love.  The central story is the close relationship between the boy, Estha, and his sister Rahel, which borders on romantic love. Their close relationship with each other ultimately culminates in a not-so-wonderful act of incest near the end. Both are also involved in a close but platonic relationship with a “dalit”, or untouchable, who befriends them and ultimately becomes the lover of their mother. That forbidden love triggers the shocking ending of the book. 

When I was about halfway through this book, I found the writing so atrocious—with the author seemingly trying to show off by capitalizing words to emphasize them, using the same phrase over and over again with slight variations, and spelling words them in weird ways (“Gnap” for nap)—that I almost put the book down. Even though the peculiarities of spelling and grammar may reflect the view of a child, it’s ultimately annoying.

It is only near the end, when the family finds out that the twins’ mother is involved with a dalit, do things pick up, the bad writing falls away, and the story becomes mesmerizing. It is this contrast between the slow and annoying bulk of the book with the absorbing finale that makes me unable to pass judgment on the book right now. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t know if it merits a Booker.

“The God of Small Things”, by the way, is a leitmotif, reflecting the fact that seemingly insignificant occurrences can have huge consequences.

My advice is “read it”, because many critics loved the thing, though some felt the way I do: conflicted at best. 

I’m ready for my next Booker Book, but I’ve been sidetracked because a good friend just finished Ishiguro’s new novel and wrote me this about it:

I  read Ishiguro’s latest recently, Klara and the Sun. It is, again, a superb and profound (and profoundly touching) novel.
My friend has excellent taste in literature, so I’ve asked the U of C’s Interlibrary Loan to get me a copy of (I have no room on my shelves to buy books). Meanwhile, I’m pondering the reader’ last suggestions for Booker winners.  I’ll have to read Klara first because I simply love Ishiguro. Klara and the Sun was “longlisted” for the 2021 Booker Prize, but I’m starting to find out that not all Booker winners are masterpieces, at least in my view.


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18 thoughts on ““The God of Small Things”

  1. On other Booker fronts, I haven’t read John Banville’s “The Sea,” which won the prize in 2005, but I have read some of his other books. “The Book of Evidence” and “The Untouchable” are great.

    1. Yes, read The Sea. It awakened me to John Banville, although I can’t say I am so taken with his other books. He also writes mysteries under the name of Benjamin Black which feature a depressed Irish pathologist. These are not Booker material, but are entertaining.

  2. Even though the peculiarities of spelling and grammar may reflect the view of a child, it’s ultimately annoying.

    Writing in dialect can be a tricky matter. Some writers have an ear for it; some don’t. And if you add unfamiliar vocabulary, so much the harder. (Anthony Burgess pulled it off with “Nadsat” in A Clockwork Orange, but even he included a glossary to help the reader.) Mixing in multiple (perhaps unreliable) narrators can make a real hash of it, even for otherwise highly skilled fictionists.

  3. I found the cover to be prettier than the writing, which I found cloying. Many reviewers disagreed.

  4. ‘Porket money’, I think, was the phrase that stuck in my head. It’s been years since I read the book but I remember feeling that Roy captured the weight of the humidity and heat but I remembered from when I lived in India.

  5. I quite liked God of Small Things. But it’s been years since I read it so I don’t remember much.

    I loved Klara and the Sun; I am (also) a great Ishiguro fan (When we Were Orphans didn’t quite do it for me though). I read Klara when it came out; lovely book.

  6. “I have no room on my shelves to buy books”

    Do what I do and start using the floor! I am a hopeless book junkie and watch the slow disappearance of my room with passive dread.

  7. I read God of Small Things many years ago and have forgotten most of it. I just remember being irritated by some of it, and at the time wondered if two people wrote this book.

  8. On a related subject, I would like to recommend that people who want to buy books avoid doing so through Amazon if at all possible.

    The best choice for the future of bookstores (as well as which books get published and the longevity of titles after publication) is to purchase them from local, independent brick-and-mortar bookstores or their online platforms.

    The next best option is to purchase them through Bookshop.org. It’s a benefit corporation that donates a large share of profits to independent bookstores.
    “Our Mission: To help local, independent bookstores thrive in the age of ecommerce.”
    “The Rebel Alliance standing up to the Amazon Empire.” — Chicago Tribune
    You can designate which bookstore you wish to receive the donation from your purchase or allow the profits to be distributed broadly by Bookshop.org.

    If you don’t want to buy books the books you read, do what Jerry does and check them out of the library. And if you want to read them in electronic format, many libraries loan e-books too.

    1. I’ve always wondered if the writers make as much money from library books? I take dvds out of the library but buy all my books, either paper or kindle. I’m a big “annotater”🤓

  9. I think you like long reads, Jerry. I have just started re-reading Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion series. Ten novels, available these days in three volumes. Very similar to Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (usually collected into four thick volumes). I would highly recommend both, but with the reservation that their appeal is probably greater to Englishmen who either remember or know of their recent history. But if you enjoy Kerala, the Home Counties will pose no problems!

  10. I never read fiction any more because fiction writers use too much dialogue and when it is in a dialect, it is even worse. The greatest writers minimize dialogue and know how to carry the action on without it. I gave up The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver because I couldnt stand reading
    all that dialect stuff. Think of all the great fiction writers of the past and present. They use very little dialogue. It is their writing style and talent that counts. I wont read stuff recommended by friends because tastes vary wildly. For me, no one surpasses Nabokov and Marquez and Virginia Wolf.
    Maybe Dickens if you have the patience. And Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter. But the rest are just summer beach reading. (I do like Rushdie….great stylist…but Arundati Roy isnt in his class).

  11. I’m slowly getting through the Booker’s myself and would again recommend Lincoln in the Bardo. Stunning, laugh out loud in parts, tragic in others. It’s also a very quick read.

    I picked up Life of Pi, quite by accident, many years ago and enjoyed it and saw it had won this prize called the Man Booker Prize. This was my introduction to the prize. Turned out I had already read, and enjoyed, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and went on to read The True History of the Kelly Gang (excellent, once you get used to the style). I figured, therefore, if I liked the sound of the blurb I could be sure the book would be well written if it had won The Booker (life too short for to read bad books).

    It isn’t a guarantee I’ll enjoy the book (Siege of Krishnapur was an early read and a slog and I was disappointed by Midnight’s Children, which was good but heavy going and very long), but all have been memorable.

    I have many still to read, Shuggie Bain being next in line.

    1. Shuggie Bain is great, if heart-breaking. Don’t neglect recent The Promise and At Night All Blood is Black.

      1. The Promise was the last Booker I read. Gritty and quite bleak, but I enjoyed very much. I love South Africa and it was a fascinating read.

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