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Book Club: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

Both familiar and separate, Roy highlights the restricted life of South Asian women
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IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY
IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

Having been educated in a postcolonial British school, the works of Western writers, from Kipling to Dickens to Twain, dominated my academics. It was only after coming to U of T to pursue an English degree that I realized how this limited syllabus of works had restricted my worldview.

So I began a journey to read more diverse authors, beginning with Arundhati Roy’s phenomenal novel The God of Small Things, widely considered a staple of South Asian literature.

The novel follows Esthappen and Rahel, twins living with a multi-generational family, made up of their doting, conflicted mother Ammu; their half-English, half-Indian cousin Sophie Mol; and great aunt Baby Kochamma, who is set on making sure everyone is as unhappy as her. Set against the backdrop of Kerala, a state in southern India, the novel explores how the lives in a family can be complexly changed from one inexplicable instance.

Readers are given both present and past perspectives: in the present, the twins are grown up and return to their childhood home after multiple tragedies have rocked the household. In the past, we follow the events that come after the arrival of Sophie Mol and how the characters’ actions influence the future.

This unique plot, which is coupled with stunning prose, may be why Roy became an overnight sensation around the world and went on to win the 1997 Man Booker Prize with this novel.

The world of The God of Small Things is quite removed from mine, but startlingly familiar. Examples of similarities are endless: the jibes that Ammu receives for being a free spirit rather than succumb to the restrained behaviour that is expected from South Asian women; the special treatment that Sophie gets for being part-English and for being so much more sophisticated than the twins; and the way the twins are forced to memorize Shakespeare and Dickens because a knowledge of English correlates with intelligence in a postcolonial society.

Readers of this book will find that it does not matter whether you can predict what will happen or receive a spoiler. The nature of its complex, intertwining plot is just one of the aspects that makes this work a masterpiece, as readers are also given astoundingly visual imagery and prose that almost reads like poetry. I found myself rereading and highlighting entire passages because of how beautifully they were written.

If readers are looking for any author for inspiration, they should not look further than Roy. The God of Small Things is witty, thought-provoking, and should definitely be the next book on your list.