Girls aren't gone from the publishing industry. The latest book with "girl" in the title is Girls Burn Brighter (Flatiron, 307 pp., ★★½ out of four) by the Indian-born writer Shobha Rao, whose debut novel tells the story of two teenage Indian girls whose friendship helps them overcome the men who try to destroy them.
When the story begins, Poornima’s mother has just died and her father, who treats her as chattel, is desperate to marry the 16-year-old off. After he hires a teenage girl named Savitha to help with his weaving business, the two girls form an instant attachment.
Then something terrible happens to Savitha. When an equally terrible restitution is proposed, she runs away, leaving Poornima at the mercy of her cruel father, who once admitted to the village matchmaker that he almost let her drown as a toddler because, after all, “she’s just a girl.”
Savitha flees to the city, where she winds up enslaved to human traffickers who subject her to unimaginable horrors. Poornima’s father forces her into a loveless match with a man whose family treats her even worse than he did. When the marriage becomes intolerable, she runs away, too, determined to find her lost soulmate.
That quest will lead her halfway around the world to Seattle, where Savitha has been sold to a sleazy Indian businessman who uses destitute village girls to clean his apartment buildings — and much worse. Ultimately, the girls’ fate will be decided by the man’s troubled son, Mohan, an alcoholic who comforts himself by reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Rao, who won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2015, is clearly a writer of great ambition. The plot unfolds briskly, alternating between the girls’ points of view. But the story is told in an operatic key that sacrifices plausibility. The bad characters are monstrous. The girls are angelic. The misogyny is unrelenting.
After Savitha has undergone an operation to make her more sexually desirable to a kinky client, she thinks, “Every moment in a woman’s life was a deal, a deal for her body: first for its blooming and then for its wilting; first for her bleeding and then for her virginity and then for her bearing (counting only the sons) and then for her widowing.”
In this Me Too era, a lot of people might agree. But this otherwise empowering message gets lost in the overheated language and imagery. At one point Mohan takes Savitha, whose favorite dish in the village was yogurt rice and banana, to a Seattle restaurant and buys her a banana split. Now she can barely believe the miraculous treat in front of her, with its whipped cream, chocolate and Maraschino cherry.
Rao writes, “Yogurt rice with a banana was like life, simple, straightforward, with a beginning and an end, while the other — the banana split — was like death, complex, infused with a kind of mystery that was beyond Savitha’s comprehension, and every bite, like every death, dumbfounding.”
Once Rao learns to dial down the melodrama, she’ll be a formidable writer.