And the winner is..

Arundhati Roy's debut novel, which was written over a period of four years,has been accused of being overwritten. Indeed the exotic nature of the narrative is evident in the very first page of the novel, which teems with metaphors and adjectives: "May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month...Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, flatly baffled in the sun".

Yet far from being cumbersome, her style absorbs the reader in its vivid portrayal of south India. The novel interweaves the personal story of two-egg twins Estha and Rahel with the broader scheme of life in modern-day India. Roy plants clues throughout the compelling narrative which are unearthed in a series of mysteries and revelations.

The story focuses on two weeks in the summer of '69 when the twins’ half-English cousin Sophie Mol comes over to visit, a visit which culminates in tragedy. The family live in Kerala, a "caste-ridden, extremely traditional community", where they run a successful pickle and jam factory. Yet the family are and are not a part of Kerala's Syrian Christian community. "An ambiguous, unclassifiable consistency".

The subjects of class and classification resonate throughout the novel, as does Roy's ability to simultaneously associate and distinguish the small things in life from the big. This is a novel which deals head-on with categorisation and transgression. Roy offers a bold depiction of India's caste-system, the strict rules which uphold it and the consequent alienation that awaits those who dare to break with convention. The narrative jumps between generations and continents as Roy strips away the layers, as if the text were a puzzle being deciphered.

The telepathic twins are the children of an "inter-community" marriage between Ammu and an alcoholic Hindu planter, they are consequently perceived as hybrids in the eyes of the community. "A family of Anglophiles", their dislocation is summed up by one member, "we sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed ashore". Estha and Rahel undergo a further displacement since they are unable to forge an identity as separate entities, and then the nine year old Estha is sent away to his father..

Ammu's divorce brings more ignominy on the family, as does her subsequent scandalous affair with an "Untouchable" Paravan man,which slices across caste-taboo, "laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much". The relevance of caste-taboo to contemporary India is exemplified by the law suit filed against Roy who has been charged with obscenity.

Disappointment haunts the lives of the protagonists, and each new generation suffers its share. The twins must define themselves against this background: they "learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws". The action is not just local and familiar but tackles political clashes too, as the rival ideologies of Marxism, Christianity and caste attempt to live side by side on Indian soil.

The novel is at times poignantly moving and humorous as Roy convincingly encapsulates the world through the eyes of a seven year old child. Roy consciously reiterates certain motifs throughout the novel which echo like memories. The narrative is designed like a stream of consciousness, the flashbacks add to the sense that you are reading a snapshot of someone's mind. In places the novel sounds autobiographical as it recalls a child's eye view and memories cloudy with innocence.

Roy was also born in Kerala, the product of a mixed marriage which was subject to caste prejudice and resulted in divorce. The God of Small Things is an engaging labyrinthine novel, where love exists as an outlaw, abuse goes undetected, and emotions are repressed while identities are lost.

Published by Flamingo, £16.99

Sarah Willcocks

Arts Index

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