The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 21 million adults and children are bought and sold globally, into both forced-labor and sex trade. Of these 21 million, when the trade is for sexual exploitation, ninety-six percent of victims are women and girls. (See more here.)
The sickening truth of these statistics is driven home in Shobha Rao’s debut novel, Girls Burn Brighter — a harrowing tale of friendship and feminism that I wouldn’t recommend lightly. Given the utterly horrific backdrop the story is set against, the novel’s tone can be described as despairing and nightmarish, at best. Although I believe the narrative is an important one, this novel wasn’t quite what I hoped it could be and I feel very conflicted about it. Let me explain:
Girls Burn Brighter is a fictional story of two girls in early-2000s Indravalli, India. Poornima and Savitha come from different families, but both belong to the impoverished weaving caste. Poornima’s mother dies when she is fifteen, extinguishing hope in the girl’s very core as she approaches marriageable age and prepares for a very different life than the one she’s always known. Frequently chastised by her father, who is bitter at Poornima’s very existence — the cost of a dowry cannot be overlooked as more than a waste of resources — Poornima leads a joyless existence, finding pleasure only in her charkha, where she spins the thread that her father will weave into saris.
Savitha is from the other side of Indravalli, where pigs and rats mingle with children to dig through trash heaps and find recyclable materials that can be sold for a rupee here and there. Her father, once a drunk, is decrepit and rendered useless by arthritis; though he loves his daughter, despite her lowly status as a female. Her mother cleans houses for other people and Savitha rummages in garbage to merely survive, though her true passion lies in sari-making. When Savitha arrives at the door of Poornima’s family home, though, the two soon become bound together in a love that uplifts and sets their souls ablaze. They become confidantes, closer than sisters. Their friendship is something to behold, truly.
A cataclysmic event sends the girls reeling, and the two careen in different directions that take them into the horrific world of human trafficking and forced servitude. In an effort to be reunited — and escape the horrors of their new realities — the two embark on separate journeys that span years and continents.
The first half of this book is bittersweet in its hopeful telling of the girls’ unforeseen friendship. It is, admittedly, a much more tolerable section of the novel, as background is being established before the hammer really drops. The narrative is sweet, obviously, for the beautiful companionship that blooms before readers’ very eyes as Poornima and Savitha become acquainted and eventually, inseparable. Bitter, though, most certainly, because the girls exist in a world that has no love for women. It was very humbling, indeed, to read the many ways in which Poornima and Savitha faced discrimination and abuse (verbal, psychological, emotional, sexual) at the hands of men merely for the crime of being born a woman.
In fact, there were many noteworthy gems from the first half of the book that I tracked while I read, such as —
“. . . it seemed to her that anything a person has held is a thing that they never really let go.”
“She even felt pride at times, and said to herself, I was their hope and I came true. Imagine not coming true. Imagine not having hope.”
The prose at the onset of the novel is beautiful, even in the sad places, and lyrical.
For me, the novel fell apart about halfway through. The prose seemed to become more rambling and aimless in direct proportion to the sharp increase of horrific circumstances that kept coming and coming.
Here’s the thing: I understand Rao’s position as the writer, and the choice she made, to create this deeply disturbing novel that is so true to life for the millions of women and girls who have been exploited. I get that. But it felt like the point of this novel should have been (or was intended to be) this portrait of feminine resilience and hope . . . and after this continual stream of negative events the hope flame just died. It went out cold.
Part of this may be due to the fact that Rao made her point early on — about the crime of being born a woman in India (and in some ways, globally) — and the repetitive narrative that followed was almost just gruesome to be gruesome. It’s hard to go into specifics without divulging too much; so I’ll just leave it at this: I was disappointed by the way this novel unfolded. The end did not completely disappoint me, though others have lamented the abrupt conclusion.
As you can see by my rambling, I liked quite a few things about the novel — the girls’ resilience and devotion to one another, the lyrical prose at the start — but there was still something to be desired at the conclusion. I felt like Rao included a few things that just . . . didn’t need to be there (the old man’s narrative in the car — like, what?).
Overall: 3/5 stars, some days more of a 2-star read. I would not recommend this to readers who are sensitive to abuse or sexual violence.
A huge thank you to Flatiron Books and @worldswithinpages for hosting this giveaway on Instagram, where I won the book! If you’re not following their accounts, check ’em out — and while you’re at it, look me up: @littlereaderontheprairie.