Books: Pickles and passions by the river

Maya Jaggi praises a tragic tale of forbidden love in a hot climate; The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Flamingo, pounds 15.99

While Indian fiction in English increasingly reflects urban, cosmopolitan life, this novel dwells in a different landscape. Set vividly in a rural backwater in India's deep south, on the banks of a "hot, grey-green river" in Kerala, it tells the tragedy of a pickle factory-owning family and the man they "love to death". Events unfold largely over two weeks in 1969, in the lives of the seven-year-old "Stick Insect" Rahel and her brother Estha, with his "Elvis puff". "Two-egg twins" prone to reading backwards and "blowing spit-bubbles", they share a "single Siamese soul"; one can wake giggling over the other's dreams. The twins become implicated in the accidental drowning of their half-English cousin Sophie Moll, and unwitting accomplices in a doomed passion between their divorced mother Ammu and an Untouchable man, Velutha.

As accounts of childhood go, this is touching but unsentimental. It has a child's obsessiveness with small things - from purple earthworms to a tangerine-shaped transistor radio. Yet what unspools as "the Terror" is seen not with a faux-naive eye but in the light of adult trauma. Estha is left mute; Rahel drifts into marriage "as a passenger drifts towards an empty seat in an airport lounge". This prism creates an atmosphere of foreboding, as innocence carries premonitions of its loss, or childish bafflement is overlayed with adult knowledge of betrayals.

The forbidden affair is delicately portrayed as one of rebellious outcasts. Ammu, though privileged, is spurned in her closed Syrian Christian community as "the divorced daughter of an intercommunity love marriage". Her children, scorned as "Half-Hindu Hybrids", are left vulnerable by her "wretched, Man-less" status - as is intuited by the "Orangedrink Lemondrink Man" who sexually abuses Estha at a screening of The Sound of Music. Velutha, meanwhile, bucks his status as a Paravan, or palm-tapper, by crafting Bauhaus furniture.

The novel's strength lies partly in revealing the larger forces unleashed to crush their trespass, from the Christianity that seeped into Kerala "like tea from a teabag" to the local Communist cocktail: "a heady mix of eastern Marxism and orthodox Hinduism, spiked with a shot of democracy". Neither challenges the caste system, colluding instead with the fear of uppity Untouchables. It also insists on timeless forces: the "Love Laws" that lay down "who should be loved, and how. And how much"; and "the boundless, infinitely inventive art of human hatred".

The pages bristle with ironic stabs at social hierarchy - in its genteel and savage forms - made sharper by the children's bright ingenuousness (they object that a hotel bellboy "wasn't a boy and hadn't a bell"). Bigoted "Touchables" get short shrift, as do Anglophiles ("shit-wipers") and sexual double standards. While Ammu is condemned to "suicide bomber rage" and frustration for having married the wrong man, "Men's Needs" are indulged - like those of Uncle Chacko, Rhodes scholar and pickle baron, with his "Marxist mind and feudal libido".

Though at times overwritten or merely whimsical, descriptions of the landscape have a lush appeal. The play on language is singular and zestful, though the copious capital letters ("Things Can Change in a Day" "Anything can Happen to Anyone") can irritate. But metaphors often strike home. Dressing up a bride seems to Ammu like "polishing firewood"; Rahel disappears into a folding seat "like sandwich stuffing"; or a thought niggles "like a mango hair between molars". The novel builds its own vocabulary of images. Fear comes in fizzy-drink flavours after Estha's abuse. Untouchables once made to crawl backwards with a broom erase their own footsteps with deference.

In a complex structure that splices past and present, the ending is glimpsed within the first few pages. While not all the problems are ironed out, the ambition largely pays off. The novel's unravelling has the power to shock despite forewarnings, and the result is both moving and compelling. Open-ended in its storytelling but humanist in its bias, The God of Small Things is a remarkably assured debut.

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