GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER by Shobha Rao
Flatiron Books, March 6, 2018
I really thought I was going to love Girls Burn Brighter. The novel starts out with a short prologue about an old woman being interviewed by a journalist about her garden of trees. In only two pages, it was lovely, touching, and hard-hitting, everything that I hoped the rest of the book was going to be.
The story then begins with two girls, Poornima and Savitha, who become fast friends in their adolescence, who work together for Poornima’s father, weaving saris. Tragic circumstances soon pull them apart, and they spend the rest of the book searching for one another.
This book is brutal. That in itself is not something that turns me off. I mean, you know me – the darker the better is pretty much my unofficial motto. What began to grate on me was how gratuitous and pointless so much of this brutality was. Shobha Rao makes her point early on. Girls – particularly in India – are given an absolutely terrible lot in life. This book is a celebration of that female-specific resilience, and that’s what attracted me to this book to begin with. But there is just no end to the suffering Poornima and Savitha go through, for absolutely no narrative reason. It’s hard to talk about this without giving specific examples, but basically, it started to feel like torture porn after a while.
Keep in mind that one of my favorite books of all time is A Little Life – if you look at the negative reviews of that, of which there are many, ‘torture porn’ is a phrase that you will see crop up quite a bit. But I absolutely object to that, because not only does the heightened pathos of that narrative fit the quasi-surrealist tone of the novel, but Hanya Yanagihara has something to say about the extreme suffering and trauma that those characters go through. In contrast, I wouldn’t say that Shobha Rao has nothing to say – just that she says it, very early on, and then doesn’t add anything else. This isn’t helped by the fact that the book also begins to take on a very monotonous, telling-instead-of-showing tone. “This happened to Savitha. Then this happened. Then Savitha did this. Then she went here. Then she went there. Then this happened.” That was pretty much the entire second half of this book. It’s just like, at a certain point, we get it.
This review is turning out a lot more negative than I had intended. I was actually planning on giving this three stars at first. It’s readable, educational about Indian culture, and I genuinely cared about Poornima and Savitha. But the amount of suffering these characters went through was so excessive it eventually deadened my emotional reaction, which was obviously the opposite effect from what the author had intended. I think this book has important things to say – I just wish it had undergone more rigorous editing, and adhered to the tried and true adage less is more.
Thank you to Flatiron Books and Shobha Rao for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.