March 2024 : The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy ( BPS review)

 Firstly, the scoresheet. Whilst this reflects our ‘first impressions’, I think this sort of a book offers more from discussion than others, and perhaps people’s views changed more during or after the discussion than normal.

18% gave the book full marks, and 50% gave it 4 out of 5.

11% gave it less than 3/5 however, and the remaining 21% were a ‘moderate’ 3 or 3.5. So, considering its stellar credentials, and a Booker prize win, it was not to everyone’s taste.  What was particularly interesting was how many people had read it a long time ago, and retained or remembered a very different impression from this current re-read.

Arundhati Roy was not to be coerced into writing much more fiction, and so GoST does stand alone as a kind of phenomenon, with so many elements packed into one book. As James Noughtie coined it, “part political fable, part psychological drama, part fairy tale”.

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness of this novel. There is a palpable sense of danger and menace, with several eye-wateringly unpleasant scenes. Characters are sharp tongued, largely selfish and often unkind.

And yet, there is a playfulness in the language, a child -like, unfiltered narration which adds so much texture to the writing. The stream of consciousness style allows us straight into the head of the characters, the sensuous, phonetic language is almost overwhelming at times and the themes are referenced time and time again - of decay, of the rights and wrongs of society, the grassroots movement of Marxism versus the slow death of the pickles factory …  so why do we remain a little detached from the issues and the welfare of the characters?

This contradiction captures the essence of India, it’s marvellous but also squalid, and we find ourselves loving some parts but detesting others. Someone described the book accurately as a ‘too difficult jigsaw’ that made us work really hard at making the connections. For some of us, it was just ‘a metaphor too many’ that got in the way of the narrative. In some sections it was even unclear if the voice was Rahal the child or Rahal the returning adult.

Some characters were deliberately unlikeable, others like Ammu the mother, were so flawed but yet we found ourselves rooting for her and the futures of her children as a result of her hopeless circumstances. Velutha, the untouchable, was by contrast a selfless and an innocent, whose circumstances are impossible to overcome despite any personal qualities.

There are many deaths. The young. The innocent. The untouchable. The unsupported. At times it seems only the selfish and self-interested are those who are left. The children, now adults, are still damaged from the various traumas of their childhood. So what indeed was, or is, the God of small things? Is it all we can control? For there are so many large things, such as who you are allowed to be, or who you are allowed to love, which seem unalterable.

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