My intentions were good. Promise and pinky swear. I initially paired Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, a book I’ve read twice before, to Karen Russell’s new book Swamplandia! because I wanted to see where these two books merged and connected–what I could find from one only having read the other. Both were highly praised novels from debut authors. Both books deal with huge family issues as seen from the eyes of a daughter in the family. They are both hugely summer books for me–set in India and the swamps of Florida–and I wanted to see if that muggy heat overlapped and if stories that were international in nature could feel the same by the end. The plots themselves hovered at the edges of reality and fantasy–the dark edge that both of the female narrators run towards in trying to put back together their families, even if they are wholly different from how it used to be.
So what’s all this with unfair comparisons you ask? They both seem like great books and, let me assure you, they are. Both are undoubtedly fantastic. They both make bookshelves happy. But what I learned from this pairing is that there are certain things that just make you love one book more than another, no matter what everybody else says about them.
Swamplandia! is superb. I loved, first off, the exclamation starting the book and the developing story of the family of entertainers–the Bigtrees–as they slowly lose the family’s crocodile theme park after having lost their mother. Each of them, Ava the younger daughter especially, are sympathetic and wonderful characters, each of them growing in separate directions as families do.
There’s great writing. Take this quote, as Ava remembers a moment from her earlier childhood, “To this day I think of rum as a marine smell; the scent of it on an adult’s breath turned the big world as small and dark as a boat hold.” Fantastic.The entire family is raw with loss, each part splintering away until it is only Ava and her older sister left at the park and it’s there that the boundaries of this world and another darker one prey at the sister’s, catching both of them up in different ways.
Here’s the thing though. While, I enjoyed Swamplandia!, my body literally wanted to crawl up into the pages of The God of Small Things and live there. The book is pressed and folded and highlighted and underlined as every book that you love should be.
The central crux of the book is right here: “Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes…. It could be argued that it began long before Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from a teabag. That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
The God of Small Things follows Rahel and her twin brother Estha through their understanding of the “Terror” that ended up splitting them from their mother and each other. The book begins when they have found each other again, now in their 30s, and patterns back and forth between past and present as the the reader realizes what happened on that one day so many years before. It’s truly only at the end of the book when you finally realize all of the sins that were committed, but also the joys therein too, that caused everything to fall apart. The book is not a “feel-good” read, nor is it one to throw in your beach bag. It is a deeply tragic book that made me want to sit staring blankly into space as I closed the last page, just so I could stay there with that feeling.
My goodness. The sing-song language: “She was thirty-one. Not old, not young, but a viable, die-able age.” The literature references: “The way she used Kipling to love her children before putting them to bed: We be of one blood, thou and I.” Its insight: “This was the trouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they knew just where to hurt.” And, most amazingly, the repetition that builds all the way through to the end: “It’s true. Things can change in a day.” This is what happens when I love a book this much. I can’t even actually talk about it, I can only keep pulling out quotes from it.
So, Mrs. Russell, I really enjoyed your book, but for this pairing, it just couldn’t come close to The God of Small Things for me. It wasn’t even that it had to come close or that there was a comparison at play. If anything, the books read together helped me learn that certain people connect with certain books in the same way two people may or may not connect together. Basically, I’d be thrilled if you went out and read Swamplandia! but I’m going to corner you and make you talk over and over about The God of Small Things if you read that instead. And maybe, at the end of that talk, we’ll both just sit there too, looking out into the distance in the same blank way.
What about you? Do you have any books that always give you goose pimples no matter how often you read them? Is there a certain book that you loved from the beginning? What other books would you recommend that are similar to these two?