The God of Small Things – Getting better with age.

The God of Small ThingsThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most books give us something – but the really special books are the ones that take something away. A piece of ourselves. The God of Small Things is one such book – still.

The first time I read it, way back in 2001, it floored me. All these years later I couldn’t remember much detail about the plot, which is the fate of most books I fear, but I did remember the feeling it left me with; an aching, throbbing, painful sense of loss.

The The Book Thief and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, and and All the Pretty Horses and Birdsong to name but a few, are all books that fall into a similar category. The category of “books-that-live-on-long-after-you-finish them” category. Books whose characters are frozen in time in that one monumental scene; that one page you cannot forget. A page that was so real and vivid that there is a part of you convinced you were actually there. In The Book Thief it comes when Liesel rocks the body of her beloved Papa. In All The Pretty Horses it’s when John Grady Cole’s girl says to him “I cannot do what you ask. I love you. But I cannot.” With Edgar Mint, that moment comes when he finally pieces together the puzzle of his life, and sitting on the edge of the tub, holds his cursed head in his hand and cries….

And on and on. The unique thing about The God of Small Things, is that there are so many pages that hit you like this. Not solely for the revelations they contain, but for the unique way in which the story is told.

It bothers me that so many people dislike or have found The God of Small Things frustrating to read, so you’ll excuse me if this review takes on a defensive tone. I do understand why it is a polarising read. Once you learn that a little girl drowned amidst a backdrop of family scandal, which you do within the first 5 or 6 pages, for what purpose would you continue reading? Giving your readers the entire plot within the opening pages, and then cycling and double-backing over the events like you might crochet a blanket is certainly no conventional way to tell a story.

Yet somehow Roy still manages to achieve a perfect story arc. The climax – an event which you already know is coming – builds towards the end with a momentum that insists you seek out the detail; the small things.

Granted, the reader has to work hard to put together a time-sequence that works, pretty much for the duration of the novel, all while getting to know the many larger-than-life characters and where they fit into the web of intricate relationships that bind one to another (for an excellent review of the characters see Lisa’s review here). I understand that this could be tiring, especially if you’re not enamoured by wordplay, which has to be understood as a A Thing Itself (to borrow a quirk of expression from Roy).

You have to be able to appreciate words for their own sake; for their power, for their playfulness, for their precision, their ability to say one thing yet mean another, their weakness and inadequacy, their relationship to other words, their malleability but ultimately their authority.

This is particularly apparent in the dialogue between the twins, much of which is communicated silently, and often uses repetitive phrases and invented words.

Across the tall iron railing that separated Meeters from the Met, and Greeters from the Gret, Chacko, beaming, bursting through his suit and sideways tie, bowed to his new daughter and ex-wife. In his mind, Estha said, “Bow”.

People, places and adult interactions are also often described from the perspective of the children:

The skyblue Plymouth with tailfins had a smile for Sophie Mol. A chromebumpered sharksmile. A Paradise Pickles carsmile.

and

But the Waiting Air grew Angry….. In the quietness of the Play (the Blue Army in the green-heat still watching), Ammu walked back to the Plymouth, took out her suitcase, slammed the door, and walked away to her room, her shoulders shining.

But then how about this for a description:

The taxi smelled of old sleep. Old clothes rolled up. Damp towels. Armpits. It was, after all, the taxi driver’s home. He lived in it. It was the only place he had to store his smells. The seats had been killed. Ripped. A swathe of dirty yellow sponge spilled out and shivered on the backseat like an immense jaundiced liver. The driver had the ferrety alertness of a small rodent. He had a hooked Roman nose and a Little Richard mustache.

With the story focusing primarily on the twins in the days before and after Sophie Mol’s death, Roy subtly reinforces their overwhelming innocence, powerlessness and vulnerability in what happened (and in the actions and reactions of others), even though ultimately it became the singular event determining the future of their entire lives.

It is particularly painful, for example, when the children, starving for for the sunlight of mother’s affection, let her down – in the normal way that children let their parents down. But Ammu’s dedication to raising them well is an expression of her love, and when they misbehave she withdraws that love. Not deliberately, not maliciously, but in the way that hurt people sometimes hurt. In the way that adults sometimes do carelessly, with the blind certainty that comes from thinking you will have all the time in the world to make amends. As a mother, who knows the pleasure of being worshipped by her children (however fleeting it may be!), these were the scenes that raked at my chest like a breadknife. Because I’m flippant sometimes too. And we all make mistakes. It’s just that in Ammu’s case, the consequences of her arrogance were devastating.

“D’you know what happens when you hurt people?” Ammu said. “When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

and

“Just go away!” Ammu had said. “Why can’t you just go away and leave me alone?!” So they had.

But Ammu is not heartless or callous. She is simply a fallible human being who had no way of predicting that her throw-away words would trigger such a fateful series of events. Besides, there are any number of other people who could be held responsible for the tragedy that unfolded on the river that day – depending on how far you want to go back and how wide you want to cast the net. Whether it be a disgruntled, jealous, conniving aunt, a drunk but well-meaning man o’ his times, the entire caste-system which prohibited the affair between Ammu and Velutha in the first place, a violent father whose abuse of his wife echoed on down through the generations, or the cops who were ‘just doing their duty’.

This is why Roy quotes John Berger in the preface to her novel “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” The God of Small Things is more about the characters than it is about the things that happen to them. It’s no good to understand merely what happened, we need to know why. This requires close and diligent scrutiny of the detail. No stone should be left unturned. If someone is to blame for a tragedy, if someone must bear responsibility for the grief and misery and hardship that another has suffered, we must find out who. Is anyone truly innocent?

Or if no-one is to blame, perhaps we should blame the God of Small Things – the one who controls the tiny twists of fate that slowly contribute, build-up and accumulate over time, drop by drop, until finally the water breaches the brim and the bucket tips over – in which case, can any single person ever be held entirely responsible?

People have criticised the God of Small Things for forcing them to suffer under the weight of all this detail, but I want yell “No!!! The DETAIL is the Point!” Maybe if The God of Small Things were renamed The God of Detail, people would be less frustrated?

Rating in 2001 = 5 stars
Rating in 2013 = 5 stars

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My Wolf, My Friend – The book that started it all

My Wolf My FriendMy Wolf My Friend by Barbara Corcoran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I could pinpoint the book that started it all, this is the one. In a nutshell, it is the story of city girl who moves to a remote farm in the Montana wilderness with her father, after the sudden death of her mother. Left largely to her own devices, Hallie befriends a wolfcub with tragic consequences.

I read and re-read this book at a kid, seizing every time on the heartbreaking passage at the end that left me sobbing time and time again. The wonder of the almost magical power this book had over me is what ignited my passion for reading in general.

So it was very strange to re-read this book last week, some twenty odd years later, out loud to my three kids aged 10, 7 and 6. What struck me is just how (wait for it) BORRRING it is for long, long stretches!

I mean, I had to work so hard at my accents and expressions just to keep the kids from falling asleep, that I think their enjoyment was based entirely on the comic observations of their over-exuberant mother flipping the pages dramatically and saying “I wonder whatever might happen next!”

I don’t know what this says about me, let alone the book. I like to think it’s a reflection of what a diligent little reader when I was 9, but more likely, I think, it’s a telling sign that books for young people nowadays have become SO much more relevant and accessible than they used to be. Kids expect to be entertained; stories should have pace and plot and action and not be overly indulgent when it comes to quiet reflection and observation (of which there is plenty in My Wolf My Friend).

This apparent lazyness?/impatience? on behalf of young readers today is not always a good thing, because of course, sometimes you have to invest a little (time, faith) in order to get something back with books. I think of the number of times I start a novel these days, and MOST of them don’t have those catchy openers that haul you in from page 1. More often than not, you’re well into a third of the way through before you feel yourself coming under the spell.

So books that teach us to invest and persevere when we’re young are great, and should be applauded. I’m just not sure that My Wolf My Friend is one of those… the “good time” my kids took away from it, for example, was all about the hilarity of MY read-aloud performance (complete with tears and blubbering at the end, right on cue) and little to do with the book itself.

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Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff – A dramatic fall from grace

Once Were WarriorsOnce Were Warriors by Alan Duff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just finished re-reading Once Were Warriors as part of my little side project “Top Ten Again” – (The ten books from my “Top Ten” in 2003).

It’s easy to understand why Once Were Warriors made an impression on me – its unique manner of storytelling, combined with such hard-hitting material, made it a book to be reckoned with. But I don’t know why else I liked it – let alone gave it a top ten spot.

Because this time around I found Once Were Warriors so very difficult to stomach. I was still impressed by Duff’s skill at ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative style, but that’s where my admiration ended. A decade down the track I looked at Once Were Warriors with fresh eyes and felt affronted.

Let’s not beat around the bush. Duff is on a simple mission to horrify and disgust as a means of asserting his very biased view about the position of Māori in contemporary NZ society. This view is that Māori (at least those Māori depicted in Once Were Warriors) are the architects of their own destruction. Duff labels alcohol dependence, the abuse of children, and the cyclical inter-generational poverty experienced by his characters, as ‘Māori’ issues.

Where is the recognition of those historical, legislative and political factors that, since colonisation, have ensured that Māori would always have lesser opportunities to succeed in a Pākeha-dominated world? Where is the acknowledgement that cumulatively, barriers to access have prevented Māori from enjoying the same education opportunities and health privileges as Pākeha, and so would always start off on the back foot? More to the point, where is the qualifying statement that New Zealand in the 1980s when Once Were Warriors was set, was crippled by an institutional racism that no-one now can deny. (There’s a wealth of texts out there supporting this argument – for a view of the waterfront start with Nga Patai by Prof. Paul Spoonley, 1996).

But instead, Duff leads his readers to believe that all that is required to break this damning cycle of poverty and alcohol dependence is the right intervention, enough courage and strength, and the simple will to pull oneself up ‘by the bootstraps’ – to use a handy little right-wing phrase. It is a political statement in the extreme – and one which he was allowed probably only because Duff is himself Māori. You only have to wonder how the same book would have been received if it had been written by a Pākeha to sense the imbalance.

Of course, I probably wouldn’t get so worked up if the characters weren’t SO believable, if their experiences and internal monologues weren’t SO perfectly realised as to feel completely authentic. So I’m not taking anything away from Duff on that count (hell, I’ve read the book twice now so he’s having the last laugh I’m sure!) But for me, the refusal to engage with the socio-political complexities of the Māori reality in the 1980s, his insistence that these issues are black and white, makes me feel as though the person who lacked courage was Duff, not the Māori in his novel.

Sure, Duff’s novel is fiction. He’s got no responsibility to present a balanced argument if he doesn’t want to. But if he’d had that balance, favoured a little more in-depth reflection instead of surface blaming, a little more sympathy for the very grey world in which we ALL live, Once Were Warriors could have been more than just a good book, it could have been a GREAT book.

Rating in 2003: 5 Stars
Rating in 2013: 2 Stars

Average = 3.5

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