Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao

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A searing, electrifying debut novel set in India and America, about a once-in-a-lifetime friendship between two girls who are driven apart but never stop trying to find one another again.

In breathtaking prose, Shobha Rao tackles the most urgent issues facing women today: domestic abuse, human trafficking, immigration, and feminism. At once a propulsive page-turner and a heart-wrenching meditation on friendship, Rao’s debut novel is a literary tour de force.

What grabbed my interest was the story of a friendship between two girls set in India and America. What made me hesitate was the human trafficking and abuse…was I wanting to read something potentially that heavy right now? Yet, I had been reading glowing reviews for Girls Burn Brighter, and I was yearning for a good, possibly meaty, all-engrossing read, so I decided to go for it (thanks to Raincoast Books for sending an advanced reading copy). While it can be heavy, there were many moments that were just as uplifting as they were heartbreaking and all-engrossing it truly was.

When Poornima meets Savitha she is brightened by the hope she now brings into her life. Poornima’s mother has died and there is little joy to be had now in her desolate dwellings with her unhappy father and siblings. Savitha may be poorer than Poornima, but she is able to find and share joy in the little delights such as banana in her yogurt rice. Together they work the sari looms Poornima’s father owns and Poornima begins to experience happiness she didn’t think existed. The two girls are so bonded, they ensure each other they will find every way to remain close together. Poornima’s father however is intent on finding her a husband, and becomes severely angered by his perceived notion that Poornima has acted in ways to destroy this chance. He acts out with devastating cruelty, causing Savitha to run away in the night. Poornima is devastated but must also overcome great cruelty herself at the hands of her husband and his family. She flees their home and dedicates herself to a search for Savitha.

(image: Carl Gierstorfer) 

Moving through alternating perspectives, the intensity quickens and I will admit to forcing my eyes to remain open many nights, they were burning with tiredness but I needed to continue reading about their adventures. Snort, I make adventures sound like these two girls had the most pleasant experiences. They experience anything but, yet throughout each of their accounts, they are reminded of their unconditional love and friendship, and how they burn with brightness, more than anyone else faced with this level of adversity, overcoming horrific circumstances, emboldened by their search and desire to be reunited. Both find themselves, at separate times however, in the same brothel, coerced into unthinkable acts. Both plot their harrowing escapes. So many times I would put this book down with a “my god, this book!” and brace myself to continue through more of their harrowing odyssey to find each other. For Savitha this journey will take her to Seattle, and for Poornima all around the world, from Singapore to Saudi Arabia and finally to Seattle as well.

I was able to finish this book on a train ride to visit family. What a wonderful way to finish – I was given the opportunity to completely engross myself, and be completely uninterrupted for hours!

Yet throughout the many agonizing scenes in this book, there is always this thread of inspiration and hope running through and you don’t despair as much as you think you would reading of their heartbreaking journeys. Girls Burn Brighter will sear your heart, your stomach will flip, but this exceptional tale of two girls growing into immensely strong women will oddly lift your spirits. Rao is right, girls do burn brighter.

Shobha Rao moved to the United States from India at the age of seven. She is the winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, and her story “Kavitha and Mustafa” was chosen by T.C. Boyle for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2015. She is the author of the short story collection, An Unrestored Woman, and the novel, Girls Burn Brighter.