Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao

The heart of Shobha Rao’s debut novel is the friendship between two girls, Poornima and Savitha. That friendship and the memory of it nourishes them and gives them dreams. The question is whether it is enough to ensure their physical and spiritual survival.

The book opens with a story about a temple and a grove of trees tended by an old woman. After I finished the last page of Girls Burn Brighter, I turned back to that beginning and read it again. And I’ve read it a couple of times since then.

Poornima’s mother dies of cancer when she is just a teen, leaving her in charge of her brothers and sisters, and caring for her weaver father. Savitha’s father no longer weaves because of arthritis in his fingers; he is an alcoholic but loves his daughter and encourages her to dream. Savitha comes to work for Poornima’s family, and their friendship grows tighter and deeper as the matchmaker and Poornima’s father seek a marriage for Poornima. Dark-skinned Poornima is told constantly that she is undesirable. Really, though, a deep streak of rebellion is also a problem.

Savitha alone tells Poornima she is beautiful. With the money she’s earned, Savitha begins weaving cloth for a wedding sari for Poori, in colors no one else would think of her wearing. She is constantly making plans for Poori to be married to someone nearby, so the friends can visit each other, but a savage act tears the two girls apart, sending them on different trajectories.

Rao’s prose is beautiful. Her attention to small things — rain, yogurt and bananas– make the reader stop and experience those moments; just as we experience the bad moments when life takes the two girls farther and farther from each other. Savitha is the dreamer. While her dreams keep her alive, they do not save her. Poornima is the planner, but her plans can only take her so far.

As a genre reader, I often roll my eyes at the cavalier approach general fiction writers take to plot. Rao’s book is filled with plot. That plot relies heavily on coincidence. Actually, once I set aside my moment of complete disbelief (really, two young women are going to find each other across not one but two crowded continents?) the second part of the book, which involves human trafficking, is believable. It is plausible that a small, tightly-run ring would have this degree of reach. The other young women trapped in this ring behave like people; they are not always heroic, yet they pull together and comfort one another when they can. This is an unsentimental and compassionate view of trafficking victims.

Really, though, Girls Burn Brighter isn’t a thriller and it isn’t plot dependent. The engine of this story is the connection of these two young women, and the suspense is whether the world can contrive to break it.

Girl Burn Brighter is often emotionally difficult to read, but I recommend it for its humanity — good and bad — for Rao’s precise and loving prose and, finally, for the friendship.

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