Girls Burn Brighter is the dark, harrowing, and (occasionally) hopeful story of Poornima and Savitha, two girls who become best friends in a village in rural India. When a violent act causes Savitha to leave the village, Poornima sets out a quest to find her. This leads her to some very dark places; eventually, she follows Poornima all the way to Seattle.
This book is brutal. The brutality is relentless. Poornima and Savitha escape one cruelty and are immediately subjected to another. Every page is full of suffering. Just about every horrible, unconscionable thing that humans to do one another is done to Poornima and Savitha. There is rape, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, sexual violence, physical violence, human trafficking. It does not ever let up.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, reading about the endless suffering these women faced, and the endless violence perpetrated against them is a way to drive home the fact that, for these two women (and many others, presumably) this is ordinary life. It didn’t end for them, and so it didn’t end for the reader. It didn’t feel overwrought at all, and I think that subjecting a reader to such abject and endless brutality can be a powerful way to tell a story.
On the other hand, after a while, the emotional impact of trauma after trauma began to dull, almost as if I was becoming desensitized to it. Eventually, I simply started expecting the worst possible thing to happen, and when it did, though it was hard to read, I wasn’t shocked. At a certain point, I cut myself off from it. In some ways, the experience of this itself is powerful: as a reader, I have the power to simply numb myself to what I’m reading, if it becomes too horrible to bear. The characters, and the real people in the real world whose lives are similar to theirs, do not have that ability. That’s harrowing, and powerful. But there were moments when it was all so overwhelming that I simply stopped being able to feel it, deep in my gut.
As the story went on, I found myself thinking about the ways that abject brutality can erase complexity. Savitha and Poornima were both fully realized characters. They were resilient, stubborn, determined, and brave, but they had different ways of showing it. They felt full on the page. And yet, because of the sheer horror of everything they faced, it sometimes felt that there was less nuance in their characters then there might have been. The set up was clear: two innocent young women up against a very, very bad world. Such a set-up doesn’t allow any room to explore any of the contractions that the two girls might have held in themselves, any mistakes they might have made, or the ways their actions may have affected people other than themsleves. All the people around them were so objectively bad, that, by contrast, they were always in the right, even in the moments when, from a different perceptive, they may have been causing harm.
Then again, sometimes the world is simply abjectly awful. People do terrible things–for power, for money, because they can. Women often suffer because of it, in truly terrifying ways. I certainly don’t criticize Rao for the way she chose to tell this story. It was both harrowing and beautiful and both Savitha and Poornima are both deeply sympathetic characters. It’s merely an observation, perhaps about the limits of storytelling itself. There are only some many things one story can do.
Rao is a gifted storyteller, and the writing is gorgeous. There were so many moments of beauty and insight, which, in a book dominated by suffering, poverty, and hopelessness, is no small feat. There were passages, in both Savitha’s and Poornima’s point of view, that blew me away with their quiet power, wisdom, and grace.
I was also fascinated by the role that story played in the narrative itself–there are many, many stories, told to and by both main characters. I’m still untangling the meaning of all these stories-within-stories, but I know they added depth to the overall book. I was struck by how much the stories they told each other, and also the intimate details they knew about each other, was part of what allowed Poornima to follow Savitha’s trial. There were so many tiny details strung like a trail of lights through the book. For me, these details not only gave the set-up credibility, but illuminated a lot about the deep love the two girls had for each other, and the connection they shared.
I absolutely recommend this book, if you can stomach it. It was brutal, but there were moments of beauty, hope, sisterhood, care, and connection strung through it like stars. The pacing was perfect; I happily gave myself up to the ebb and flow of the story, as two people tried, against all odds, to care for each other.
***SPOILERS BELOW, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK***
Oddly, it was Mohan, one of the two brothers who help run their father’s human trafficking ring, who seemed to have the most nuance. He was awful. He did awful, unconscionable things. He was tortured and troubled by what he was a part of, and yet he chose to keep doing it; I have little sympathy for him. And yet, he had a backstory and his own motivations. He actively wrestled with himself. I’m not saying that’s enough to redeem him, but I did appreciate seeing the contradiction and nuance in his character. In the end, he played a major role in helping Poornima find Savitha. Mohan is the kind of character that most interests me in fiction: conflicted. He’s morally reprehensible, and he also does something good and useful (perhaps for sinister reasons–it’s up for debate). I appreciated the inclusion of his character and I thought it added a lot to the story.