The country where worst things happen

THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy Flamingo pounds 15.99

"The Secret of the Great Stories", so The God of Small Things tells us, "is that they have no secrets ... They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't."

It's not a bad description of Arundhati Roy's eagerly anticipated first novel, which tells at the very outset of the death of nine-year-old Sophie Mol (a half-English girl on holiday in India), then gradually fills in the tale of when and why she died, and who took the blame, and how her death affected the ones who survived.

The story is simple enough, as great stories are supposed to be, but slow to reveal itself front-on. At its centre are the twins Estha and Rahel, who have returned as adults to their childhood home, Ayemenem in Kerala, southern India, scene of the accident that befell their English cousin. Boy and girl, born 18 minutes apart, non-identical yet with a "single Siamese soul", the twins have been separated ever since the tragedy. Sent away, Estha has become strange, solitary and utterly silent; kept behind until her mother's death, Rahel, too, has drifted, in and out of a loveless marriage and a series of dead-end jobs. They are like a pair of shells, Quietness and Emptiness. But as they rub up against each other's presence, the sigh of an ancient secret begins to reverberate between them.

This eerie present alternates with a second time-frame, that tense, noisy, profuse summer 23 years earlier, the summer of 1969. The key events are condensed into a handful of brilliant set-pieces occurring in the space of 48 hours: a drive to Cochin, en route to which the sky-blue Plymouth containing the twins, their mother Ammu and uncle Chacko is held up at a level crossing while a march of workers campaigning for better wages goes angrily past; a visit to see The Sound of Music at the cinema, during which Estha is sexually molested by the man selling drinks in the foyer; a trip next morning to the airport, where they collect Sophie Mol and her mother (Chacko's ex-wife) and take them back to Ayemenem; an evening call which Uncle Chacko pays on Comrade Pillai, the local union man, to discuss working arrangements at his factory, Paradise Pickles & Preserves; and the discovery of an old wooden boat, which the twins hope to use on the river.

The twins' great-aunt, the obese, malevolent Baby Kochamma, can sense trouble coming. A recurrent image is that of the moth in the twins' grandfather's collection, which becomes the heart fluttering in their chests as events spin out of control, as well as their mother's helpless flight towards self-destruction. Nemesis comes in the form of a carpenter, Velutha, to whom Estha and Rahel turn in order to get the boat repaired, and in whom their clever, yearning mother (who combines "the infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber") looks for something more. Velutha is black, a Paravan, and therefore Untouchable. The end involves the river and a house called The Heart of Darkness. Its cost is terrible: "Two lives. Two children's childhoods. And a history lesson for future offenders."

Part of the novel's thesis is "that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes." But at another level this is a story "that began long before Christianity arrived and seeped into Kerala like tea from a teabag, [that] began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much." It's both a family tragedy, involving a handful of headstrong spirits who break laws, and cross into forbidden territory; and, it's implied, an Indian tragedy, the worst happening in a country where "Worst Things kept happening".

The British traditionally look to Indian novels to provide something exotic yet familiar, and The God of Small Things, which features a family of larger-than-life Anglophiles "trapped outside their own history", doesn't disappoint. The landscape is so lush, so teeming with insect and reptile life (ants, caterpillars, "a beige gecko the colour of an undercooked biscuit"), so palpably there, that it's likely the novel will do for Kerala's already burgeoning tourist industry what John Berendts's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has done for Savannah's. Above all there's the verve and perkiness of the language, ranging from the Joyceanly run-together ("greenmossing", "wetgreen and pleased", "thunderdarkness") to the Nonsensy (the twins have a habit of saying things backwards, and it's noted that Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala, is itself a palindrome).

Such history and politics as are here - for instance, a digression on why the Communist Party should have taken root in Kerala - are worn lightly. As the plot thickens, the style becomes more clipped, with some passages reading like extracts from a screenplay (unavoidably, the novel has "soon to be a major motion picture" written all over it), and others, more lyrical, aspiring to poetry ("It was warm, the water. Grey green like rippled silk. / With fish in it. / With the sky and the trees in it. / And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.") The sensuousness of the description makes up for the book's structural wobbles: at times Arundhati Roy seems uncertain whether the story should be told from Rahel's point of view, or by an omniscient narrator.

Echoes of contemporaries occasionally suggest themselves, but the novel I found myself thinking of is Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, published in 1935, which E M Forster championed for its critique of what he called "this wicked rubbish about untouchability". The older characters in The God of Small Things can remember the days when Paravans were expected to cover their mouths when they talked, and to walk backwards sweeping their footprints away, lest Brahmins should be defiled. The lingering prejudices of that caste system were still strong enough in 1969, when Arundhati Roy was a child, indeed are prevalent enough still, to produce the tragedy she describes here.

But a closer parallel might not be with an Indian novel at all, but with To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the American south, which also recreates a childhood world in order to tell of racial injustice and sexual transgression. "She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man." Harper Lee's words could equally well be Arundhati Roy's, whose fine novel might begin among the spices and pickles of Midnight's Children but ends in the tradition of the romantic popular classic.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?