Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Book recommendation: The God of Small Things

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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.

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18 thoughts on “Book recommendation: The God of Small Things

  1. I’ll bet the author of that book probably experienced a lot of the same things as you when writing it over those four years.

    It is so inspiring to me to see someone humbly stick to her guns for so long, even with the natural doubts in the back of her mind (thinking it would only achieve local success at best). Yet she still put forth the effort to take such care in perfecting her craft. It’s awesome to see that she ended up with such a great harvest for her efforts!

    I’m going to check it out.

    • Thanks for commenting! And yeah…I think it’s probably not a coincidence that she was doing it mostly just for the sake of Art and that it turned out so great. People who are focused only on gaining an audience and making a profit tend to produce less good stuff. Let me know what you think if you read it!

  2. I can totally relate to the mix of pleasure and anxiety reading a well-written novel produces for you. I’ve often found myself googling authors to find answers as well 😉
    I’ll definitely check out The God Of Small Things; thanks for the recommendation. I’d love to read your top ten list by the way.

    • Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who does that!

      The rest of my top 10 in no particular order:

      The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
      Atonement by Ian McEwan
      Disgrace by JM Coetzee
      The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
      Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
      The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald
      Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates
      A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

      …I hope I didn’t forget something important. (I don’t actually keep a list, so these are coming off the top of my head!)

  3. I enjoyed your book review so much, Kristen, particularly the injected frustrations of an aspiring author.

    Writers are never happy with what they have written, thinking they could have improved somewhere so I think the determination to finish a book no matter how many years it takes to write it must be satisfying in itself. Otherwise, why would writers write?

    • Thanks for reading! Very true — the writing is its own reward. Personally, I can see mine getting better and that makes me happy. But I still despair of whether it will ever be “good enough.” The pesky ego wants it to be recognized somehow 🙂

  4. I read The God of Small Things a couple of years ago. Your review of it reminds me how captivating Roy’s writing is. You’ve inspired me to make a top ten list of my own. (I do keep a list of all the books I’ve read but it’s sorted chronologically.)

  5. I tried to narrow it down to a Top Ten. I failed miserably. Apologies in advance for the info-bomb below 🙂

  6. TOP 15: CONTEMPORARY NOVELS (1960-)
    Davies, What’s Bred in the Bone
    Findley, The Wars
    Hill, The Book of Negroes
    Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
    Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
    Krauss, The History of Love
    Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
    Mistry, A Fine Balance
    Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
    Roth, American Pastoral
    Shields, Unless
    Styron, Sophie’s Choice
    Urquhart, The Stone Carvers
    Vassanji, The Assassin’s Song
    Verghese, Cutting for Stone

    TOP 10: THE MASTERS (before 1960)
    Conrad, Heart of Darkness
    Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
    Greene, The End of the Affair
    Forster, A Passage to India
    Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
    Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
    Rand, The Fountainhead
    Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
    Steinbeck, East of Eden
    Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

    HONOURABLE MENTION: TRANSLATED WORKS
    Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
    Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
    Saramago, The Cave

    • Ooh — great lists. Thanks for sharing! Catcher in the Rye should be on mine as well. I also love The End of the Affair, The History of Love, and The Poisonwood Bible. And with another vote for In the Skin of a Lion, I’d better get to reading that soon!

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