Arundhati Roy, a young Indian writer, has devised a novel of poignancy and considerable sweep, along with some serious weaknesses. Among the appealing elements are a wit that is sardonic and whimsical by turns, a portrait of social change in rural India in mid-century and both sympathy and harsh judgment for a doomed small-town upper class. Above all, Roy evokes the premonitory pain of the two children through whose eyes the story is told--spectators of their family catastrophe and its victims.
Her two children, by contrast, are stumblers. The loquacious Chacko goes off to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, marries an Englishwoman, has a child and promptly falls into apathy. After putting up with him for a while, his wife divorces him and marries another man. Chacko returns home and intervenes in the family business with ruinously expansive ideas. Ammu, his beautiful and rebellious sister, has also returned home from a disastrous marriage, bringing two babies, Rahel and her twin brother, Estha.
In a complex, violent climax, Sophie drowns while playing with the twins. Ammu's affair is discovered. Chacko, distraught with grief and fury, orders her out of the house and separates the twins by sending Estha to live with his father in Calcutta. The carpenter dies from a brutal police beating instigated by a vicious Kochamma aunt. Ammu, living in a furnished room and struggling to make a living, sickens and dies, and the bright and imaginative Estha falls into irrecoverable silence.