Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao published in 2018.
“When Poornima first meets Savitha, she feels something she thought she lost for good when her mother died: hope. Poornima’s father hires Savitha to work one of their sari looms, and the two girls are quickly drawn to one another. Savitha is even more impoverished than Poornima, but she is full of passion and energy. She shows Poornima how to find beauty in a bolt of indigo cloth, a bowl of yogurt rice and bananas, the warmth of friendship. Suddenly their Indian village doesn’t feel quite so claustrophobic, and Poornima begins to imagine a life beyond the arranged marriage her father is desperate to lock down for her. But when a devastating act of cruelty drives Savitha away, Poornima leaves behind everything she has ever known to find her friend again. Her journey takes her into the darkest corners of India’s underworld, on a harrowing cross-continental journey, and eventually to an apartment complex in Seattle. Alternating between the girls’ perspectives as they face relentless obstacles, Girls Burn Brighter introduces two heroines who never lose the hope that burns within them.”
This was a hard book to read, so this is going to be a hard review for me to write.
Girls Burn Brighter follows two young girls living in Indravalli, India. Poornima’s father hires Savitha to help with their weaving business, and they become incredibly close in a short period of time. Savitha is attracted to Poornima’s gentle nature and Poornima admires Savitha’s feisty attitude towards the world. They bond through their love of weaving, pondering of the world, and simply existing as girls in their small village. When Savitha endures a traumatic event at the hands of Poornima’s father, she flees the village without a trace. Poornima is left feeling guilty and heartbroken, and to make it worse she’s soon married off to a man with an abusive family. After undergoing intense mental and physical abuse from her in-laws, she also decides to abandon her life in search of Savitha. She first heads to Vijayawada, and slowly but surely Poornima finds herself lessening the distance between herself and Savitha. Throughout the course of a few years, she works in a brothel that dabbles in human trafficking, and every step she takes is a proactive measure to find her friend. This leads her to find out Savitha is in Seattle. As Savitha is slowly being broken by the men who own her, the memory of Poornima keeps her going, and little does she know that Poornima is coming for her. It’s a story about the hardships women face and the friendships that are created to keep the light alive within themselves.
I need to preface this by saying this book is not for the faint-hearted. I originally wanted to describe it as a major bummer, but that would be an incredible understatement. There are very detailed descriptions of rape, sexual assault, verbal abuse, oil attacks, decapitation. Some of the things that happened to these girls were absolutely brutal to witness, in fact, I had to take some breaks mid-chapter to fully process what I was reading.
Although it was difficult to read at times, I can appreciate the uncut look into the realities of many. As far as I’m aware of, Girls Burn Brighter is not directly based on a true story, but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t happen every day for thousands of girls around the world. As disgusting as it sounds, human trafficking is still an issue, and this book gives the reader a glimpse into the intricate business of buying humans. The description that Rao provides conjured up very raw and gruesome images in my mind, and as uncomfortable as it made me, I respect the necessity of knowing the cruel truths of our modern society.
Having said this, I was so desperate for something good to happen to one of the girls. It was just horrible thing after horrible thing after horrible thing happening to both Savitha and Poornima. The characters are so likeable that I wanted the best for them, and they were definitely getting the opposite treatment. Even when there was a glimmer of hope, it seemed to be quickly extinguished. Yet the characters inner dialogue still remained hopeful, both girls specifically speaking of the special “light” that they see within only girls. Even when the girl’s outer appearance seemed to be dwindling, there was an inner light that stayed alive (this is, I’m assuming, is the reason for the title).
The reason both girls maintained their inner light is due to their ardent friendship, which was depicted very well. As much as they relied on each other, they did not depend on each other. They are both independent women that simply use each other’s energy to keep going. Their interactions were beautifully written, whether they were right next to each other or miles apart.
Now onto one of the most crucial parts of a book—the ending, and to be honest, this one didn’t satisfy me. Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that it was very vague (in fact I don’t think I could spoil it because even I’m not entirely sure what happened). Did the girls finally meet? If so, what happened? Did they just wander back to their old life, and lived happily ever after? I doubt it, but I’ll never be able to know. The last paragraph is extremely ambiguous and could be interpreted in many ways. Normally, I don’t mind an ending that keeps the imagination running wild, but in this case, I really craved a firm ending. The whole book is a buildup to when Savitha and Poornima invisible embrace each other again, or in keeping with the theme of this book, some other darker scenario. Yet it sort of fizzles out into nothing, and I was very disappointed, to say the least. As a reader, it was somewhat exhausting to go through all the trials and tribulations and receive no payment for it.
Girls Burn Brighter as a whole is unapologetically harsh, yet has a reserved gentle side saved for those who power through the darkness. Kind of like life in general, I guess. Rao’s style of writing was smooth enough to clearly follow. Yet I wasn’t as thrilled with this novel as I thought I’d be from the synopsis I had read. So if you plan on reading this in the future, you must be prepared for intensely described scenes of disturbing acts and an ending that might have you scratching your head in confusion. Every single trigger warning should be plastered on the cover of this novel.