KC Kirkley

Reading and Writing in the Margins

Little Moments Add Up: Reading The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy's debut novel, is the type of book that inspires me to grab my own pen and set forth.  What really prompts this reaction is Roy's audacious use of language.  She frollicks with phrases, warps words, and summons metaphors in ways that test the boundaries of this reader's imagination.  Not only that, but every image, every motion of every character, is laced with diabolical meaning.  Little moments add up.  Small things, for the reader and for the characters, add up to large things as they accumulate to orchestrate disaster.  In fact, form matches message brilliantly here.  The story is an examination of the small things that lead to big horrors and the reader can sense that each small thing that each small character (literally and figuratively) enacts contains a gut-level kernal of foreboding.  But Roy manages to set the mood on a razor edge without resorting to face-slapping foreshadowing like the late master Poe. 

For instance, check out thisminor moment (embedded in a major moment) in the story, just less than half way through the book:

"Ammu caughed up a wad of phlegm into her handkerchief and showed it to Rahel. 'You must always check it,' she whispered hoarsley, as though phlegm was an Arithmetic answer sheet that had to be revised before it was handed in. 'When it's white, it means it isn't ripe.  When it's yellow and has a rotten smell, it's ripe and ready to be coughed out.  Phlegm is like fruit.  Ripe or raw.  You have to be able to tell.'"

Roy uses this little image/conversation to accomplish multiple levels of meaning.  First, we see that Ammu has degenerated into a loathesome creature - one who not only discusses phlegm in detail, but who also shows it to others.  But we also get this idea that the relationships and fates of these characters are a lot like that phlegm - they must be examined for that "rotten smell."  Third, Roy accomplishes something on the linguistic level, offering insight to Ammu's character (she now speaks in short, simple, crude sentences as compared to her more educated and complicated speech patterns earlier in the chronology of the story) and offering yet another in a book's worth of fresh metaphors (phlegm as math / phlehm as fruit / phlegm as relationships).

Although there is nothing foreboding about the phlegmatic discussion per se, this scene, along with the multitude of other moments like it, forces the reader to brace for something horrible.

If I could write like Roy, I'd be thrilled.  And yet, this was just her first foray in to long fiction.  I can't wait to read her most recent novel, The Cost of Living.