Rahel and Esthappen are fraternal twins (“two-egg twins”) just eight years old in 1969, living on their family estate in Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India. Their family is a broken one. They live with their mother, Ammu, who is lovely but lonely; their uncle, Chacko, who is Oxford-educated but returned home after his divorce; their blind grandmother, Mammachi, who plays the violin and started a pickle factory; and their great-aunt, oddly named Baby Kochamma, who is an ex-nun.
The novel begins by telling you that it will end in tragedy. Within the first few pages, you find out that the twins’ British cousin, Sophie Mol, somehow dies during a Christmas visit to their home. The rest of the novel slowly moves back and forth between the present (when the twins are 31-years old) and the past, to fill in the details of exactly what happened on that fateful day and all the history that led up to it. That day forever changed every resident of the estate.
In case you can’t tell from that description, this is a very dark and depressing story. You know from the beginning that it ends in tragedy, and it keeps its promise: there is no happy ending here for any of the characters. There is plenty of foreshadowing, too, right from the very first pages, so there isn’t much suspense or mystery to the story.
Instead, it’s a story about a family and how this one tragic event shaped their lives forever. It’s about how, as the twins say, Everything Can Change in a Day. Despite knowing much about how it ends from the beginning, it is a convoluted story, as the author moves back and forth between present and past, gradually filling in details of each of the characters’ lives and history. Some people in our group didn’t like that moving back and forth and found it confusing (the author doesn’t really tell you when she is shifting to a different time period).
While it is tragic, this novel is also rich in imagery and detail, bringing the steamy jungle atmosphere of the estate to life and giving insight into a world very different from our own. The book also includes political and historical elements, with some detail of the dynamic history of that region, including British rule, independence, and communism - much of which I didn't know. Many people in our book group enjoyed the descriptive writing, even if they weren’t thrilled with the story itself. It’s an interesting story, just one full of tragedy – there’s not much room for hope here. Personally, I prefer my novels with at least a bit of hope and an uplifting tone, though I am glad to have read it. It definitely left me wanting to know more about that region of India, its history and its customs. It’s always interesting when a novel carries you off to new places.