When the book begins, we see the world through the eyes of the grown up daughter, Rahel, returning to her family home to visit her mute twin brother, Estha. Then we flash back to the twins’ childhood and there are a serious of lengthy passages where the histories of various members of her family are described – the awful great-aunt, the frustrated grand-father, the divorced mother, the spoilt uncle, etc. The timeline bounces back and forth. We know, very early on, that someone died in the past – but why and how is slowly revealed. There is a whole host of characters and we follow the story through many different points of view.
The book covers a number of classic Indian themes: the Indian caste system, the class system, the patriarchical system, family ties, spoilt Indian sons, the repression of Indian women. And some universal themes: the closeness of twins, the innocence of children, the power of sexual attraction, the passage of time, the small things that turn into big things that ruin lives.
I had read the book before and remember being very moved by it. I remembered the characters for months afterwards – a sign of good writing. On re-reading, I tried to be more analytical and critical – watching how the novel was constructed and noting the aspects I enjoyed and those I didn’t.
What I liked about this book: I loved the richness of the language, the vivid imagery of India – its cultures and landscape – as told through the history of this particular family. I liked the gradual uncovering of the story; although we know that something terrible happened, the gradual reveal is brilliantly done. I loved the parts of the book that are told through the eyes of the children – with their own constructions of language and their private mythology.
What I didn’t like about the book: There was almost too much in it. Back story is useful for a writer’s understanding of a character, but you don’t have to share everything with the reader. The ending of the book felt stretched and some pruning would have tightened the story without reducing its richness.
And, although the ending of the novel was very moving, the story seemed incomplete. It seems the author broke one of rules of story telling. If you begin with inviting the reader to identify with a particular character, you are expected to end with some sort of closure for that character. And that character should change as the novel progresses. So, we know why Rahel’s mother did what she did. But I thought the story was about Rahel. So does Rahel ever come to terms with the events in her childhood? And will she return to America and leave Estha behind? And will Estha ever regain his speech?
This was a debut novel and deserved to win the Booker Prize in 1997. I don’t think the author has written anything since – a great shame. [Correction: I have since discovered that Arundhati Roy has written many things – although no further fiction novels. A taste of her activities can be found here – http://www.racialicious.com/2012/08/03/racialicious-crush-of-the-week-arundhati-roy/]