Poornima and Savitha have a few things in common. They are both daughters born into families who see them as a burden. They live in a poverty stricken region of India where the ambitions of a daughter can go no further than the marriage altar. And they both resist the life that has been planned for them in hopes of achieving something greater with their lives.
There seems to be a growing number of novels centered around cultures that do not value female children. For this website alone I can think of three examples, set in China and Africa, where daughters are treated as worthless and shameful in the eyes of the parents and/or the larger community. Girls Burn Brighter, similar to The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, surprises because it is not set hundreds of years ago in a less “enlightened” age, but as recently as twenty years in the past. This makes the treatment of these women feel somehow more shocking as it forces the reader to acknowledge that perhaps that humanity is not quite as enlightened as it pretends to be.
By daring to have ambitions outside of being a wife and mother, Poornima and Savitha are forced to confront the fact that they are essentially trapped by their lack of education and their families’ disregard. No one asks these women what they want, it is taken as a matter of course that they will obey the various men in their lives without thought or question. The consequences that these girls reap for rebelling against the rigid patriarchy are both tragic and horrifying. Describing the difficulties of holding onto hope through brutal circumstances supports the first hundred or so pages of Girls Burn Brighter. However, as the narrative progressed and the situation only ever seemed to get worse, I began to wonder what point the author was trying to make. Towards the end, I started feeling that this novel was the literary equivalent of a “torture porn” horror film such as Saw or Hostel. We are exposed to the deepest pits of human suffering, but what are we really meant to take away from the experience? At what point does continuing to detail their misfortunes become masochistic instead of cathartic?
A friend of mine once said something along the lines of, “Never read a book set in India unless you are prepared to be completely and utterly devastated”. In addition to the works of Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy, I would submit this debut novel by author Shobha Rao as yet another installment in that category. Girls Burn Brighter was beautifully written, but left me feeling rather pessimistic towards the human race.
My rating: 3.5/5
Happy reading everyone!