This first novel is written in English by a native Indian who makes her home in India. It is the tale of Esthappen (Estha for short) and his fraternal twin sister, Rahel, and their divorced mother, Ammu, who live in the south Indian state of Kerala. Ammu, a Syrian Christian, has had no choice but to return to her parental home, following her divorce from the Hindu man she had married--the father of Estha and Rahel.

The story centers on events surrounding the visit and drowning death of the twins' half-English cousin, a nine year old girl named Sophie Mol. The visit overlaps with a love affair between Ammu and the family's carpenter, Velutha, a member of the Untouchable caste--"The God of Loss / The God of Small Things." (p. 274)

Told from the children's perspective, the novel moves backward from present-day India to the fateful drowning that took place twenty-three years earlier, in 1969. The consequences of these intertwined events--the drowning and the forbidden love affair--are dire. Estha at some point thereafter stops speaking; Ammu is banished from her home, dying miserably and alone at age 31; Rahel is expelled from school, drifts, marries an American, whom she later leaves. The narrative begins and ends as Rahel returns to her family home in India and to Estha, where there is some hope that their love for each other and memories recollected from a distance will heal their deep wounds.


The novel is rich with Indian family relationships, social custom and mores, politics, and the most universal of human emotions and behavior. At one and the same time, it is a suspenseful and tragic mystery, a love story, and an exposition of the paradoxes that exist in an ancient land whose history was forever altered by its British colonizers.

The narrative structure is skillful, weaving back and forth from the present to the past, foretelling without revealing future events. In this sense, it might be analogous to reconstructing an illness from a chaotic patient narrative. The reader is alert to signals but isn't immediately sure what they signify, and is drawn to return to earlier sections as the story unfolds, in order to derive full meaning from all of its parts.

The author's style is both poetic and whimsical. The larger story contains many smaller ones that stand alone as small gems of observation and insight. The perspective of childhood--of imagination and inventiveness, of incomplete understanding, fear, dependence, assertion of independence, vulnerability, comradeship, competitive jealousy, and wonderment--is beautifully rendered.


This novel has won the Booker Prize (10/14/97).


Random House

Place Published

New York



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