This one got a lot of positive pre-release pub…and all of it said get ready to have your heart broken. I’m not always in the mood for that, so I waited. Because to appreciate a story like this, you need to be ready. But I knew that eventually I wanted to read it because that title is just…everything. I’ve been getting really into feminist fiction literature lately and I knew this is one that would fit beautifully into that genre. But at the same time it’s real, not speculative, fiction, and that deserves an extra layer of care and respect. In any case, was lucky that the correct mood hit at the same time that it was available at my local library.
“I’m the one with wings.”
Girls Burn Brighter is about two young women living in India, Savitha and Poornima. From fairly different backgrounds, but still struggling with the reality of being women, they meet as teenagers. Poornima’s mother has just died and she is running the household by herself, while her father attempts to arrange her marriage with a less than impressive dowry. Savitha’s family is even poorer than Poornima’s, her father is an alcoholic, and she is struggling to make enough money to save for her younger sister’s dowries (not to mention her own). When they meet, they are each drawn to each other in a way they’ve never felt before, becoming fast and close friends and confidants. But then an unspeakable action causes Savitha to run away and Poornima is left alone, thrust into a marriage that turns ever more dangerous and violent. Years later, both girls have faced horrific bodily harm and mental/emotional trauma, but holding onto the memory of each other, each in their own way, allows them to keep a hold on their inner flame, the light that keeps them truly alive. And they each begin to take steps to find some freedom, to find a better future for themselves and, potentially, to find each other again.
Let me start with the writing, because I need a moment to gather myself before I can talk about the story itself. The writing was superb. The prose was simultaneously poetic and clear, which is exactly what it needed to be in order to tell a story like this. I felt completely transported while reading, but also managed to stay grounded in the events. And I loved the (rightful) anger in the tone of the writing juxtaposed with, so often, the resignation of our characters to (at times our heroines, but most often the others), or at least lack of interest in breaking free from, the reality of their situations. The combination was utterly striking. The pacing was perfect, with the story moving forward smoothly while we waited and hoped with bated breath for things to get better, for the happy ending we hoped was coming but with each passing heartbreak became less and less sure of seeing. And the alternating viewpoints of Savitha and Poornima did a wonderful job in telling their stories separately while jointing giving us a more complete picture of what life is like for women in a variety of circumstances and locations.
As for the story itself, one of the blurbs on the cover says that this book “…blew my heart up. Heart-shards everywhere.” and honestly I do not know if I can find better words than that to describe this reading experience. Savthia and Poornima face some of the worst possible conditions, in both the regular world and underworld of India and in the regular and underworld of the United States. And for all their horrific “luck” (if you will, because I cannot think of another way to put it), facing many of the most horrible treatments against women that are perpetrated commonly (and uncommonly) in both India and the US, it never seems forced. It never comes across as if the author is trying to fit in as many heartbreaking “buzzword” situations as possible. No. In fact, it seems, and this might be what is saddest about reading this, like what they deal with is almost the most understandable chain of events, considering the limited options available to them. And still, their stories are mixed in with spots of better “luck,” of good people stepping in to lend a small hand and/or of small moments tilting in their favor. So that as you read all these horrible things they face, you sometimes find yourself thinking, ‘wow, that could still be so much worse.’ And that’s shattering to imagine. Heartbreaking in the extreme. And you want it to be unbelievable, but it’s not. This is real life for so many. And they deserve to have their stories recognized and their fates fought against.
It’s just…I don’t even know…there are so many layers of opportunities/possibilities coming together to create a reality that seems almost predestined. But even through that, our heroines manage not to lose themselves to the same resignation that everyone around them is suffering from. The light inside of them, originally lit one for the other and maintained through memories of each other, flickers but never dies. They struggle with realizations that they will have to be as ruthless as the world they were born into in order to own their ending. They fight towards each other, to the exclusion of almost all else and even when there seems to be no hope. It’s inspiring in the way that makes you want to cry for days and find a way to change the world so that no one else ever has to be that inspiring again. And, since this seems to be the place to say it, the ending is pure bittersweet perfection. The author creates a flawless open-ended moment that mixes your knowledge that things are not over and more, perhaps worse, perhaps even more permanent, heartbreak is still coming, but there is also a spark of hope…a flame that matches the one Savitha and Poornima having been carrying within them throughout the novel. And I closed the book knowing that while it might not be the “happy” I wanted them to have, I also knew that they stood a chance.
I recommend this to everyone. It’s beautiful and terrible and so, so important. Although it was hard to read sometimes, that’s exactly why it should be read widely. And to end on a more hopeful note, in the spirit of the book, things may seem bleak, but if we, as women, stand together for each other, we make a better future possible. Because it’s true: girls do burn brighter.
Here are some of my favorite quotes, many of which have that juxtaposition of anger and poetry that (I felt) gave this book the heat it deserved:
“That’s the thing with girls, isn’t it? … Whenever they stand on the edge of something, you can’t help it, you can’t. You think, Push. That’s all it would take. Just on little push.”
“…she began to see the world differently; she began to see it with a kind of clarity: there was what you owed, and there was what you could sell to pay off what you owed, and whatever was left (if there was anything left) was all that you could say was truly yours, all that you could truly love.”
“She was tired of deals. 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.”
“What fools we all are. We girls. Afraid of the wrong things at the wrong times. Afraid of a burned face when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine. Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes. Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body. And infernos. Infernos as wide as the world. Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind, even the wind. Even the wind, my dear, she thought, watching you burn, passing over you, and through you. Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.”
“As if, against rain, against my father, against what remained, all we had to do was stand closer. Stand together. As if, against rain, against fate, against war, two bodies – the bodies of two girls – were greater than one.”