Published by Flatiron Books
Publication date: March 6th 2018
Genres: Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Literary
One of the reasons I love to read is that it offers me a chance to see places on the page (and in my mind) that I’m not likely to see in real life. Just as importantly it exposes me to experiences and lives utterly different from my own. Last month my first five-star book of the year was Song of a Captive Bird, a novel about an Iranian poet, and, while aspects of a woman’s life in Iran in the 1960s were unfathomable to me, the novel was still filled with such grace that I felt better for reading it. I wish I could say the same for Shobha Rao’s debut, Girls Burn Brighter, the story of two teenage girls who live in a small village in India, but I can’t. It’s 2001 but the lives of Poornima and Savitha read like something from another century, when women were chattel.
Poornima’s mother has died and as the oldest child she takes over all the household duties, meaning she can no longer work making sari cloth for her father. She is fourteen and is facing the prospect of being married off, except she’s not pretty so her father is expected to pay a higher dowry. He finally finds a family willing to accept her, but they do not meet the groom until the wedding even though he is a catch on paper. He is educated and the family seemingly wealthy, except none of that turns out to be quite true and she finds herself as a slave with a man who does not care for her at all. When the family decides she is more trouble than she is worth they deal with her as they see fit.
Savitha is the girl Poornima’s father finds to work in her place. Slightly older, Savitha comes from a family of love and is everything Poornima is not—strong, confident, sure of herself, despite being even poorer. The girls become fast friends, with Savitha even giving Poornima hope for her new marriage. She firmly believes they will remain friends, that they will have better lives. Until she is raped and told she must marry her rapist. Then Savitha disappears. After Poornima escapes her marriage she has only one goal, to find Savitha. Soon, the two girls are on a hellish path that leads them around the world via the sex slave trade.
How to explain Girls Burn Brighter? There is no doubt of Rao’s gift with words, there is nothing crude or poorly conveyed in the novel. If anything, her words, words about unending degradation and brutality against two teenage girls, are too clear, too precise. There is no letting up, no respite in the novel, even as it is coming to a close. I realize, in this time when vulnerable communities, like women, are even more at risk that it’s important to see what is under the rock, to understand the full extent of what men are doing, but I question how much is too much. The point of Girls Burn Brighter was clear early on so how can the novel serve its purpose if the reader is revolted enough to turn away? If this were non-fiction then every detail is needed to make a case. Every fact matters. In fiction, too many of these kinds of details feels salacious and the point is lost.