Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Tri-review, part one: "The God Of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

For the past few months I’ve been on a book-buying spree. I justified it by telling myself that I’m supporting writers, independent Australian booksellers and the global publishing industry in a feat of three-birds-with-one-stone consumerist acrobatics. Of course, the person I wasn’t supporting was myself, who quickly ran out of money. Furthermore, the ol’ pile o' Books I Haven’t Read But Look Good On My Bookshelf is increasing exponentially, simply because I can’t read as fast as I can shop.  So I’m on a book-buying-ban at the moment, and now that I’ve announced it publicly you can remind me of all the writers I should actually be supporting by reading their books and reviewing them, rather than just looking at their pretty covers. As part of this cold turkey escapade, I have briefly jotted down my thoughts on three of the books I finished in the last couple of weeks, to ensure that said reviewing actually takes place - and I'll post them over the next three days!

As I read the The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy, my impression of Roy was that she has complete mastery over the English language. Even though her descriptions are long and lavish, not a word is out of place. Check out the lush, vivid description in the book’s opening paragraph:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
Roy is Indian, so English is not, presumably, her first language. However, her position outside that of “native-speaker” gives her power. It’s as though she stands apart from the language, considers its traditional limits and boundaries – and ignores them. When Roy wants a new word, she simply makes one up, and the result is almost always more succinct than it perhaps would have been, had she described in “correct” English. "Dustgreen" is used in the quotation above, and “dullthudding” is the word she uses to describe the particular sound of Ayemenem rain on the roof of the Ipe family home. Much of the book is told from the perspective of the children, Estha and Rahel, and the language that inhabits their dialogue reflects the way Indian children might collide with the strangeness of English. Ousa is the Bar Nowl, who lives in the factory on their property. When Estha replies in the affirmative to a question, he says “Exackly.” “Boot” is Rahel’s favourite English word because of the way it sounds as it comes out of her mouth. The God of Small Things is a tough read in places, content-wise – it’s the story of a family whose members are all embittered against each other, of caste prejudice, of death, mourning and grief. But it’s also the story of a brother and sister who, due their closeness, manage to make it through some very traumatic moments and its linguistic style made it a joy to read. It won the 1997 Man Booker Prize – and deservedly so.

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