A disappointing and frustrating reaction for this reader…but what did book group think?
I recently read The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy as part of a book group that I regularly host. When this title was first nominated and chosen by the group an air of excited anticipation seemed to prevail throughout. We all eagerly awaited the reading of this Man Booker Prize winner, a book that has received bountiful praise.
But our initial excitement soon gave way to disappointment as we all tried and failed to immerse ourselves in Roy’s world. After another wonderful book group meet on Wednesday I finally got to meet up with the other members to hear their experiences and reactions to this story. While it was evident that we had all deeply struggled to connect with this story, I found myself wondering why a group of intelligent bookoholics who read and love similar literature, found this particular book such a struggle?
Unlike my usual reviews this one is a culmination of my thoughts and those of the other book group members. Unfortunately not everyone could make it so I’m just speaking for those who could make it…off course I would love to hear everyone else’s thoughts.
The story centres around the lives of twins Estha and Rahel; spanning their entire lives from their early childhood through to adulthood and all of the parts in between, including the fatal incidents that shaped and changed who they became. The story is however told quite sporadically and jumps from past to future, to the middle and even the times before their birth in a manner that seemed to leave us all slightly confused. The fact that the characters are not clearly introduced adds to the confusion, Roy will suddenly add several new characters but offers no explanation as to who they are. A few of us didn’t even know who was female and who was male between Rahel and Estha.
From the first pages of the book we know that at some time in the future a fatal incident will take place that will make all involved complicit and shape the course of more than just Estha and Rahel’s lives. What this is exactly is shrouded in a cloak of mystery; while in one sentence Roy will reveal a small clue, she will in another conceal truth and clarity. The effect is a slightly confusing but overall adds an intriguing element to the novel.
The twins are raised by their mother Ammu who left her home town to become married, only to meet and marry an alcoholic man who tries to prostitute his wife in order to better his own career. Ammu fled her husband and returned home, much to the shame of her family.
Both the twins and their mother live in Ayemeenem with their uncle Chako, great aunt Baby Kochamma and grandmother Mammachi. However the whole story consistently pertains to a visit from Chako’s daughter Sophie Mol and her mother Margret who come to India to visit. At the very beginning we are not sure of the significance nor the full details of this incident but we do find out early on that Sophie Mol dies. The whole novel is made up of disjointed scenes from times before Sophie’s arrivals to the time after and also intermittently her time when there. Roy reflects upon the impact Sophie has on the twins and the revelations she causes upon their own self understanding.
On paper the story reads as a compelling and intriguing story full of deep, complex, intuitive emotion and an acute understanding of human nature. In reality however the story fell short of my expectations. What clearly became apparent at book group was whilst we could all view the books potential and even had pleasurable moments of clarity where we tapped into the novels heart, for the most part we felt rather locked out of Roy’s world, excluded by her confusing writing.
As Ijeoma put it ‘it feels like Roy opens up her mind and simply outpours what she is thinking, but whilst sometimes she holds your hand and guides you through her mind, a lot of the time she just let’s go, rushes of and leaves you to figure it all out yourself’.
What I guess Ijeoma is saying, and certainly what we all agreed is that this book seems exclusive and alienating in it’s style. When reading the book Roy often comes off course when telling her story and instead bogs down the novel with confusing descriptions and musings. They may make perfect sense in her head, but somehow for us they just didn’t translate, leaving us feeling a little stranded. ‘It’s like you need to be in her head to understand what she is talking about’.
Off course this opened up an age-old question of should the writer hold your hand at all or is it up to ourselves to work through and understand a novel? I guess it really comes down to preference, some of us like a strong solid story that yes does makes us re think certain ideas and concepts, and yes does tap into our emotions, but also has clarity and purpose. Others may prefer a story that allows us to form our own understanding without the writer guiding us there? However while I usually fall into the first camp I can quite easily slip into the second one if the story is right for me. Sadly overall this just wasn’t.
But it’s not fair for me to simply slate a book and although I struggled to connect with this story it didn’t stop me from occasionally admiring the clever and emotive imagery of this story and the rare moments where Roy revealed an understanding of human nature and love that helped me emotionally connect to the book.
For example at the beginning of the story we learn about Pappachi who discovered a rare moth and tried to lay claim to it by naming it, however he was cheated of this chance and Roy describes the moth as a bitter feeling that embodied itself within him and altered the man he became. In his own grand children Roy describes this feeling and talks about the moth moving and twitching indicating quite beautifully the passed down family bitterness.
I know Dave, who writes himself, struggled somewhat with some of the literary devices used within the book which he, along with others felt failed to hit home with the impact that seemed intended, instead they over complicated the flow of the story.
So that was the groups collective thoughts. I do think that some of us felt more passionately against the book, one person didn’t finish it which speaks volumes! So where do I fit in? Well despite feeling like I was walking through murky water a lot of the time with this book I can’t deny that I found the plot line and all that it encompassed interesting. It was like a deeply moving story buried under piles of overly flowery language, weighed down with unnecessary description. I wanted to get stuck into Estha and Rahel’s world, learn more of their story. I also felt compassion and empathy for Ammu and Velutha. But I just felt constantly thrown of course.
The book had a more appealing after taste for me. Roy has clearly chosen her style and stuck to it. That it didn’t work for me seems inconsequential compared to the masses of people who adored it. But it did leave me wondering how a book that so many have struggled with can win such a prestigious award?
So what does everyone else think? Did you enjoy this book? Or, like me did you struggle to connect with it? Perhaps you absolutely loved it and could offer a new perspective? I’d love to hear your thoughts.