I wasn’t sure what to expect other than everyone raves about this author and I had to sit with it all a while to decide what I really felt about it. It’s a powerful book and a little hard to read sometimes but also strangely beautiful.
Trigger: death of a child. It’s right in the first chapter that the girl dies at 9 years old, so I don’t really consider it a spoiler. I know this isn’t as common a trigger as say rape, but it’s one of mine. Not everyone can stomach dead children in their pleasure reading.
“They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.”
The year is 1969. In the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt). When Chacko’s English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that things can change in a day, that lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river…
This is my first Read Harder 2017 book, it was the debut novel for Arundhati Roy.
The writing is so beautiful that I was sucked in before I even knew what was going on. It was the way she described the twins right in the first five minutes of the audio. I did listen to it, which I don’t recommend. The story shifts in time and the audio doesn’t give good markers when the shift is happening. The other problem is that my copy (which came from the library and will make it into the hands of others so that’s why this is really a problem) skipped sometimes. It was annoying but didn’t make me not want to continue, just like when the deaths were mentioned there in the first five minutes of the 6+ hours of audio.
The reader, Sarita Choudhury, did a wonderful job. Since she is an established actress, though I didn’t recognize her by name only face when I looked her up, one could hardly have expected less.
The story itself is very uncomfortable to listen to but that doesn’t lessen the experience. Sometimes we read difficult stories and it was especially trying as this was my audiobook while my print one was Burger’s Daughter, which is just as difficult for different reasons (it’s about the antiapartheid movement in South Africa). The thing about it is that the story seems true to life. The moments come together in unexpected ways that mark the difference between punishment for one’s actions and consequences for one’s actions. Consequences can be so much harder because they can be so unexpected and so harsh sometimes.
This is a book of consequences. As from the Goodreads blurb above from the book page, it’s consequences for tampering with the love laws. I really loved the way the deliver included the “love laws”. We see so much of this in lots of stories but it’s not quite worded this way. There are consequences and sometimes they are things that characters can just deal with, and sometimes not tampering brings about the plot (looking at you, Wuthering Heights).
The jumps in time aren’t bad once I started to get a better feel for the rhythm, but I feel like I would have had some marker or something that would have suggested the shift and that would have made for an easier read. As it was, they made perfect sense within the story as it unraveled and we got to know the world everyone was living in. It may have just been backstory woven in as well, but the queues just weren’t that obvious for me and I sometimes had to back up the story to figure out what I had missed.
The characters were amazing, and not in that they’re-all-good-people kind of way but more in the Gatsby way. No one is completely a good person (okay, I feel like one is but I won’t tell you who). They are just people looking out for their interests individually and what the family does for them. Okay, the family part probably sounds harsh, but this is a complicated family that it doesn’t seem like anyone wants to be a part of, so everyone is scrambling for some way to be themselves but can’t do that on their own. You might think that they would work together because everyone gets further that way, but no. Because it’s a true to life family and there is a lot of baggage here. Most of the baggage gets explained in the beginning though, which is part of how the back and forth in time or backstory confused me in the beginning. Everyone is at least a little broken and it all contributes to how they broke the love laws and why and how much.
The pace is hard to describe because of the shifting time line and constant presence of backstory to different things. Don’t get me wrong, all the backstory was 100% necessary and it moved in a fluid way. I think it’s really the flow that messed me up sometimes because we would be with 30 year old Rahel and then young Rahel and wasn’t sure where it happened. It moves along nicely, even though you know from the beginning where it’s going. Except that it doesn’t stop there and that was the point that I found especially horrifying and beautiful at the same time.
I’m definitely going to continue reading Roy. Her style is just gorgeous. Seeing just the title of some of her other stories and how well this one read and having read some winners alongside her and recently, I wouldn’t be surprised to find her on the Nobel Laureate list one day. As with the novels of those who have won, this was hard to read sometimes and harder to continue because of the pain it caused, but totally worth it.
As mentioned above, I got my copy from the library but if you are interested in purchasing it, click on the cover for purchase options on BookLikes.