Published in 1997, The God of Small Things quickly skyrocketed Arundhati Roy to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. Her first (and to date only) novel won the 1997 Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the English-language literary world. Interestingly, Roy was trained as an architect and had never before considered herself a novelist. The novel, which Roy wrote between 1992 and 1996, has sold over 6 million copies and has been translated into 40 languages. Yup, not bad for a rookie effort.
The novel takes place in Ayemenem, a village in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, in 1969 and 1993. The narrative shifts back and forth in time in a series of flashbacks, memories, and foreshadowing of what's ahead. The plot centers on Estha and Rahel, fraternal boy and girl twins living with their divorced mother, Ammu, and her family. The central events of the novel involve the fateful visit of their half-English cousin, Sophie Mol, and her mother Margaret Kochamma. We learn at the beginning of the novel that Sophie Mol drowns in the river by the family's house. The rest of the novel pieces together the events that led up to her death and the aftermath that ensued, darting back and forth between Estha and Rahel's childhood and adulthood in the process.
While telling the story of Sophie Mol's death, the novel resonates with larger political and social issues. The society that our characters inhabit is still largely shaped by the caste system, which defined social classes in India and dictated the status each person held. The Indian Constitution of 1949 outlawed the caste system and discrimination based on social status, but it's pretty clear throughout the novel that there are certain social rules that persist and that still have to be obeyed – particularly in terms of who is allowed to interact with whom. The novel pays particular attention to what the narrator calls the "Love Laws," which interpret the caste system to explore who is allowed to love whom, how, and how much. The violation of these social rules is central to the unraveling of the seemingly nice, simple life that Estha and Rahel experience as children and has a key role in forming the circumstances that lead up to Sophie Mol's death.
The novel also pays attention to class politics, particularly those based on Marxism and communism. The rise of the lower classes and the toppling of the upper classes is a concept at the heart of these political ideologies that gives hope to some of the novel's characters and fills others with fear. Roy herself seems to be particularly interested in the politics of class. She has written many political articles and was even awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004. All in all, there is a lot to untangle in this book, but Roy's gorgeous writing makes the whole journey a pleasure – even at the moments when this book is at its most heart-wrenching.
A lot of things happen in The God of Small Things that many of us might not be able to relate to right away. Finding someone out there who knows what it's like to be half of a boy/girl twin duo in Kerala, India in the 1960s with an obsession for The Sound of Music, a crazy aunt, and a pickle factory in their backyard is kind of a tall order. Few of us will think about the particulars of the story and say, "Hey, that's just like my life!" – and that's fine. (Actually, it's probably better that way, given all that the twins Rahel and Estha have to go through.)
That said, there are many aspects of the book that most of us can relate to all too well. Everyone has had something happen in their life that they wish they could undo. We've all wondered why something bad had to happen to us. Maybe you failed a really important test, even though you prepared like crazy and were totally confident when you sat down to take it. Maybe your crush turned you down when you thought she/he liked you back. Maybe you've lost someone close to you. At some point, we all go through an experience in which things seem to go terribly wrong, and we all agonize over why it had to happen.
At its heart, The God of Small Things is about more than just the way the death of Sophie Mol affects the lives of Estha, Rahel, and the rest of their family. It's also about why bad things have to happen in the first place. The book gives us many different stories about a number of the characters involved, showing how each person's story got us to the place where we end up. It forces us to think about whether things happen randomly or if they're meant to be.