‘Poornima and Savitha, born in poverty, have known little kindness in their lives until they meet as teenagers. When an act of devastating cruelty drives Savitha away, Poornima leaves behind everything she has ever known to find her friend.

Alternating between the girls’ perspectives as they face apparently insurmountable obstacles on their travels through the darkest corners of India’s underworld and across an ocean, Girls Burn Brighter introduces two heroines who refuse to lose the hope that burns within.’

Oh, I so enjoyed this book. If you’ve read it, enjoyed might be a strange word to describe it, because it seems strange to enjoy a book that is so cruel, and so unfair, to two young girls who are already born into a harsh world, but this book is just so well written, so descriptive, and has such hope amongst the despair.

Poornima and her family have barely anything – her father makes saris to sell, as did her mother before she became ill, and Poornima works the charka, to make the threads needed for her parents’ work. They have little food, and their home is a basic hut.

Savitha and her family have even less – an alcoholic father who begs for scraps, with Savitha and her younger siblings forced to scour the dump looking for things to sell just to scrape enough money to feed them.

They meet when Savitha begins to work for Poornima’s father, working the loom to help him create saris. Their friendship is almost instant, and they become closer than sisters.

When something unspeakable happens to drive Savitha out of their community, Poornima is bereft. Married off to a cruel husband, with an even crueler family, her life seems set in misery.

As the years go by, events unfold that lead to Poornima deciding to set off after her friend, the only real kindness she ever knew, and she does everything she can to find her.

This book really is beautifully written. It begins with a short chapter about an old woman who planted hundreds of trees, because, being childless, she wanted something to care for. In an interview with a local journalist, he asks the old lady if she sees them as children, to which she replies that she does. “You’re a fortunate woman,” he said, “to have so many sons.” The old woman looked up at him, her eyes on fire, her wrinkled face taking on the glow of her girlhood. “I am fortunate,” she said, “but you’re mistaken, young man. These aren’t my sons. Not one. These,” she said, “are my daughters.”

This opening chapter really sets the tone for the rest of the book. The two leading female characters in this book are so well written – they are strong, they are dedicated, and they persevere through such cruelty, time and time again, and come out the other side even more determined to carry on, spurred on by their need to survive, and their desire to reunite with each other.

The author really takes us on a journey with the two lead characters, from the slums of India to the dark streets of Seattle in America. She never backs away from writing about the cruelty inflicted on the girls, and while it makes for difficult reading, it is honest, and realistic, and shows just how cruel some men are able to be to young women.

The narrative switches between Savitha and Poornima, following the same timeline, just the two different perspectives, and it works really nicely in this book, the story still flows, and each chapter is long enough that I didn’t feel like I needed more time with either of the characters.

The ending of the book is frustrating, purely because I wanted more. I could have read another 100 pages of the girls’ story, I was so invested in them and how their lives would have panned out. I would have loved an epilogue, maybe ten years down the line, telling us about how happy they were, and how well their lives had turned out, but that’s just because they are so well written that I really was rooting for them the whole way through the book.

I will say, as much as I enjoyed this book, and as glowing as this review has been – it is not an easy book to read. There is very little obvious joy in it. The girls are subjected to serious cruelty – vicious attacks, rape, prostitution, poverty – it has some seriously hard scenes to read, so it’s not for the faint hearted. The joy in the book is between the lines – the way the girls come out the other side, and how they don’t let their circumstances or the things that happen to them beat them.

It really is a celebration of feminism, in the most simple form – these women overcame the grip of the men who would hold them down, they did whatever they could to push themselves forward, learning new languages, getting jobs to earn just enough money to get them where they needed to go, and never forgetting who they were in the process. They never gave in, even when it would have been much easier to do so.

I would most definitely recommend this book, to everyone really, but especially to someone who enjoys books with a female narrative, who enjoys stories of perseverance, and people who enjoy a book that is a journey.

2 thoughts on “Girls Burn Brighter – Shobha Rao

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