The God of Small Things is Arundhati Roy's first and only novel to date. It is semi-autobiographical in that it incorporates, embellishes, and greatly supplements events from her family's history. When asked why she chose Ayemenem as the setting for her novel, Roy replied, "It was the only place in the world where religions coincide; there's Christianity, Hinduism, Marxism and Islam and they all live together and rub each other down ... I was aware of the different cultures when I was growing up and I'm still aware of them now. When you see all the competing beliefs against the same background you realize how they all wear each other down. To me, I couldn't think of a better location for a book about human beings." Because of her ingrained understanding of Ayemenem's diversity and cultural paradoxes, Roy allowed her imagination to run wild in a familiar landscape.
Upon finishing the novel in 1996 after four years of writing, Roy was offered an advance of half a million pounds. Rights to the book were demanded worldwide in 21 countries from India to New York. Upon its publication, the novel became a bestseller, going on to win England's premier literary award, the Booker Prize, in 1997. This made Roy the first Indian woman and non-expatriate to win the award.
Yet Roy's grand introduction into the fiction canon was not without incident. The God of Small Things infamously enraged some leftist Keralans upon its release. Soon after the book's release in 1997, a lawyer named Sabu Thomas attempted to have the book's last chapter removed because of its graphic description of sexual acts between members of different castes. Fortunately for the author and the novel, Thomas was unsuccessful and his lawsuit served only to bolster Roy's assertions throughout the novel that the caste system still greatly affects present-day Indian society.
Winning the Booker Prize placed Roy among the ranks of such writers as Salman Rushdie. Although in interviews Roy has denied imitating Rushdie's style, The God of Small Things certainly shows his influence. The novel's constantly changing perspective, its nonlinear progression of narrative, its lush, almost extravagant, sometimes capitalized or contracted diction, and its confounding of fantasy and reality also connect the novel with the style of "hysterical realism" (one might think here of the young American writer, Jonathan Safran Foer). Despite these similarities to others, Roy's narrative style and perspective are distinctive in The God of Small Things. In addition to the literary techniques described above, Roy hones a delicate use of language that makes each word seem precious while imbuing phrases with a keen sense of whimsy. She skillfully incorporates foreshadowing in tiny refrains such as "Things can change in a day," "roses sicksweet on a breeze," and "blood spilling from his skull like a secret." The reader must collect these phrases along the way so that they fall into place with ease by the novel's end.
According to one critic, "[Roy's] most original contribution in this novel is her portrayal of children, entering into their thinking in a way which does not sentimentalize them but reveals the fierce passions and terrors which course through them and almost destroy them." Indeed, the perspectives of child protagonists Rahel and Estha are given the most weight of any throughout the novel. Even though, according to another critic, Rahel and Estha are "victims of circumstance," they are to an equal extent intelligent evaluators of it.
Although the book has no single protagonist and no definitive moral, it certainly champions details of life to which contemporary society tends to be too frenzied or farsighted to pay heed. Roy does her best in the novel (as well as in her other writing and political activism) to enfranchise the "Small Things," overlooked people and issues that, in her opinion, deserve more attention.