Title: GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER
Author: Shobha Rao
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads
I’m struggling to decide just how I feel about this book. So, first off, if you’re going in completely clueless like me (why do I not read book summaries properly), massive content warning for rape. This book deals with human trafficking, so you can imagine the content here. This is kind of why I was so unsure of what I thought when I finished it, but that’s no fault of the book itself – I just don’t really like reading books about things like rape and human trafficking. Which isn’t to say that the scenes in this book were overly graphic or exploitative, but there were still some instances where I felt like it was a bit too much, like all this trauma was just being piled on and on with no real purpose (there were definitely some scenes I, and the narrative, could have done without). I expected something totally different of this book, but I don’t like to give a book a low rating just because it didn’t meet my own expectations, especially when the book is objectively well-written.
That’s the second thing I want to talk about: the prose. I thought this was a really beautifully-written, thoughtful book. The narration is kind of omniscient, which I don’t always like, but here it meshed well with the lush, lyrical prose. The prose and some of the narrative choices give this book a kind of mythic quality; indeed, there are so many coincidences occurring it seems one would have to suspend disbelief to be able to enjoy this book.
At its heart, it is a story of friendship between two women, Savitha and Poornima. Though they spend much of the book apart after being separated, Poornima spends literal years structuring her life in ways that will lead her to find Savitha. This is also a book about misogyny’s ugly depths. Most of us know men are demons, but this book elucidates that truth unflinchingly. Is there a single male character in this book who isn’t absolute trash? Perhaps Savitha’s father had redeeming qualities in his youth, but otherwise all the men are pretty horrific, and even some of the women have become warped by internalized misogyny.
But I liked how the misogyny was presented through a distinct cultural lens. Though we all live in a patriarchal world, misogyny takes different forms depending on where it is manifesting. American misogyny is going to look very different from Indian misogyny. For example, dowry is a big issue in this book. Dowry is the payment a bride’s family is expected to provide to the bridegroom and his family upon marriage, seemingly for the upkeep the new bride will require. As you can imagine, the great financial strain this puts on bride’s family’s means that the impoverished will begin resenting their daughters. In one harrowing incident in this book, Poornima’s father recounts a anecdote when he almost let Poornima drown as a child because he sees daughters as expendable and expensive.
My main issue with this book, narratively speaking? That goddamn ending. There’s no payoff. Literally the entire book has been building to a very particular climax and then, right when you’re expecting the payoff, that moment of climax and resolution, the book simply ends abruptly. I literally double-checked the ARC I had to make sure I wasn’t skipping pages or missing an epilogue, because the ending was so abrupt! Perhaps this is just a pet peeve of mine as a reader, but I like closure, which this book desperately needed. Otherwise, with the way it is, it just feels incomplete.