In a good year, I read 40-50 books (this figure includes audiobooks), but my list of all-time favourites doesn’t often change — this is either because I read good books early on, or because those I read first imprinted themselves deeply on my psyche while I was young and impressionable and just discovering the joy of novels. Maybe it’s a mix of both. But what I want to share with you now is a book that, from its first page, began its slow and steady creep into my top ten list.
The downside of being a reader and an aspiring writer is that the kind of books that thrill me most as a reader are the same books that most pain me as a writer. While I’m happy that writing of such high calibre exists, I’m sad that I don’t possess the ability to write this well. While I’m engrossed in the plot, I’m also trying to stand outside of the plot so that I can see how it’s constructed. If the book it is really good, I’ll nod off at my analysis post because I’m so taken with the story, and that leaves me delighted and also annoyed.
It can get to the point where I find myself flinging a book down in exasperation after reading an especially beautiful passage, and storming to my computer where I begin googling the author to learn how long it took the author to write it, how old he or she was when it was published, and so on, because Answers, dammit! I need answers!
Later I’ll calm down. I’ll return to the book and it will soothe me with its beautiful story, its impeccable prose.
It’s an agony-and-ecstasy sort of thing.
Here’s what I learned about Arundhati Roy during my anguished research. It took her a respectable four years to write The God of Small Things, her first novel. She wrote it thinking that it would never be read outside of India. After it was published — and after it won international acclaim and the Booker Prize for 1997 — she declared herself finished with novel-writing and moved on to political activism, in the service of which she has authored several books of nonfiction. Like Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, she’s bestowed just one perfect novel on the world (though she did announce in 2007 that she intended to write another).
Turning to the book itself: it deals with issues of caste and forbidden love in Indian society. To borrow from a New Yorker review by John Updike, it builds a “massive interlocking structure.” It’s said that good fiction relies heavily on consequence — it gives us pleasure as readers to see one thing leading to another, to have a sense that things are not happening randomly but inexorably. The events in Roy’s book, while not simply told, are (when you think about them later) as neatly causal as a chain of dominoes. Everything that happens — even the horrible things, and there are several — has a sense of inevitability.
It is also written in a nonlinear fashion that is brilliant in how it evokes the state of mind of the main characters — a boy-girl pair of “two-egg twins,” eight years old when the main action takes place. In the beginning the action has already occurred, but the reader is as clueless as the children about why. These details are backfilled and the reader’s understanding grows to the book’s ending, which is also arguably its climax. It’s a beautiful subverting of the typical novel structure.
Finally, the writing is awfully good. The attention to language is like what you’d find in a poem, and it’s amazing that so much care was taken with an entire novel. The rendering of childlike thoughts and forms of speech is perfect and hilarious:
‘Where d’you think people are sent to Jolly Well Behave?’ Estha asked Rahel in a whisper.
‘To the government,’ Rahel whispered back, because she knew.
Finally, it’s a joy to experience India’s sights, sounds and smells painted in vibrant colours, as here, in the book’s first paragraph:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
Read this…it is likely, for one reason or another, to break your heart. But in that way of really good books, it will also feed you.