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.
Susie | Novel Visits says
Your thoughts in that last paragraph are spot on. It was too much. She did go too far and that was what left me so haunted. As I read your review it occurred to me that all abuse and degradation really buried the friendship element to the point where it felt like an after thought. Still, this will be a very difficult book to ever forget.
Agreed. I’m still thinking about it, but definitely not from the perspective of how strong their friendship was. If that was the point, she missed.
Interesting thoughts, Catherine (as always). I had this one on my list and read some pretty dark, brutal works, but after reading your words and Susie’s, it seems those brutalities overshadowed the rest of the book, which is never a good thing. I realize that is a sliding scale for different readers, but if I can take a book off the list for a valid, trusted reason, it’s one less thing I have to cram in or feel guilty for not getting to. Thanks to you and Susie for your impressions.
Exactly. It is one thing to bring things to light, but if it was that important to the author to detail again and again horrific things then she should have written non-fiction about the deviant sexual proclivities of men and how far they’ll go to satisfy them. Everything else in the book was lost.
I heard this book was nonstop brutal & I don’t want to go there. Too much!
The best way I can put it is: I’m not sheltered or a prude but there were things in that book that I had never heard of and NEVER wanted to know about. I get that they exist, but reading about them in detail doesn’t increase my understanding of the problem.
I have a galley of this one and, as much as I hate to pass on books that I’ve been gifted by publishers, I am afraid that this will be more than I can handle right now. I’ll hold on to it, just in case, but after hearing your thoughts, and Susie’s, I’m going to move on.
I wanted to include a p.s. to my review because if you are the kind of person who has a strong stomach then it is an important subject. I just don’t need that level of horror in my fiction. Even more so when it is likely accurate. The rest of the story was lost to me.