The God of Small Things is a novel that defies the power of blurbs and summaries. In fact, my copy only has praises from high brow publications and the critic/writer John Updike, no less. It’s “a novel of real ambition” that “invent[s] its own language.” True enough, its ambition left me feeling dizzy after finishing the last page and made me write the following lines after the last paragraph: how can I be conflicted about an amazing novel? I love it, and yet I have so many complaints. It’s all the small things.
Whatever I exactly meant by that escapes me now, but I distinctly remember my smugness accompanied by a bitter aftertaste that I refused to swallow. I wanted to spit it out because yes, I get that this is an important novel, but my mouth forces the bitterness in because I somehow feel that its importance is derived from its self-importance.
The fraternal twins Estha and Rahel return to their childhood home a couple of decades after being separated from each other when they were still kids. The narrative shifts back and forth to the past and the present and forms an intricate web of memories, and it is indeed the amorphous shape of memories that the novel’s structure resembles. Reconstructing the series of events that leads from one tragedy to another is most likely a means for the twins to purge themselves of a past strewn with guilt.
I will not detail the events as they happened since I want you to feel and understand the workings of the shifting storylines. While figuring out the 5Ws and 1H, one will figure why this is an important novel. It is set during a politically tumultuous time in an Indian province and depicts the struggle between the middle and the working classes, the horror of the caste system, the cultural clash between the Indians and the British, and forbidden love in its many forms, which I will no longer divulge for the spoiler sensitive.
The characters are all fleshed out. I have no complaints about them despite the motivations that lead them to do evil things. That, I really like because it bares the dark blotches that stain our souls. My biggest complaint is the novel’s tone and diction. The repetitive and cyclical use of Capitalized Phrases seem to allude to Important Things so one gets distracted too easily, wondering if there’s something that’s missed when in fact, they are just Small Things. The repetition is another way to imitate the way memory works, but it just gets tedious and exhausting. It’s almost like an exercise in lyricism that achieves the sort of lines serving to show off a writer’s talent.
There are many moments when the language shifts to wry humor, but like an overly repeated joke, it becomes stale. I feel that the literary gymnastics becomes too contorted that it starts to look like not an evocative performance but a carnival freak show. But don’t get me wrong. The writer’s talent cannot be denied, especially when she sums up the novel in this single line:
It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined.
In the end, I say that this is a must-read. Never mind my feelings. It is, after all, the book that so far earned my most number of marginalia.
[Read in March 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[321 pages. Trade paperback.]