It’s the last Saturday of the month, which means it’s Give a Sh*t Book Club time! This month our pick is Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao.
I was impressed with Rao’s short story collection, An Unrestored Woman, when I read it a couple years ago. Her writing is so precise, you can feel the intention behind every word. I could tell that this was a writer who cares about craft, so I’ve been looking forward to her debut novel for months.
Or I was looking forward to it, until I started reading all the reviews about how dark and tragic it is. When I saw the comparisons to A Little Life, a book I admired but one that left me with a serious weight on my heart, my excitement waned a little, dipping even further when I came across the words “torture porn.” Yikes. That doesn’t sound like something I want to read, let alone encourage others in my book club to read. So I decided to deviate from my normal practice and read the book before announcing it as a selection for the book club, just to make sure I wasn’t asking anyone to read something they would regret. It was hard for me to imagine an author like Rao, whose previous work I had so respected, incorporating any sensitive topics into her novel in a gratuitous way, but all those reviews definitely concerned me.
I should have trusted my instincts. Is Girls Burn Brighter dark? Yes. Do terrible things happen to the two main characters? Yes. Are there parts that are difficult to read? Yes. Do I make a point to balance books like this with cheerful, fun books in order to take care of my mental health? Of course.
But is the book gratuitous or cavalier in its treatment of difficult subject matter? My answer is a resounding no.
The story of Savitha and Poornima and their years-long struggle to find each other is a beautiful love story. It’s also a book-length testament to the value of a woman and a powerful refutation of all the ways they are used, controlled, subjugated, and diminished. The violent scenes are not gleeful in their detail; in fact, most are restrained in their language and require some level of interpretation.
I thought it quite striking that both Savitha and Poornima were, by the end of the book, physically less than they were at the beginning, Savitha missing her hand and Poornima’s face scarred by burns. The waste of it broke my heart. I’ve read many books about characters whose bodies are ruined by disease, but I’ve read far fewer about characters whose injuries were deliberately caused by the evil of others. And of course, that’s just the physical scars, the ones that we can see on the outside.
I love the title and the recurring theme throughout that the girls have a spark inside them that propels them forward through life and towards each other. Savitha’s fierceness in particular carries such dignity. I loved the line early in the novel when Savitha’s father told her, “You’re the one with wings,” and I loved even more the way she repeated it to Poornima later on, “I’m the one with wings.” I was struck by the contrast between how Savitha and Poornima each carried herself—one a cherished daughter, though from a poor family, and the other viewed as a burden, told from an early age that she would have been better off if she’d drowned in the river. They each held a determination to survive, to overcome, but Savitha’s spark held a powerful edge that I attributed to her knowledge that she had been loved by her family.
I’m not sure what I would have done if Poornima and Savitha hadn’t found each other by the end of the book. I knew it wasn’t very likely considering how many horrible things had happened to them and how far they had traveled from home, but I was so relieved that in the end, they weren’t alone anymore. I thought it was fitting that the book ended with Poornima at the door and Savitha opening it—I believed so strongly in their bond that I knew once they were together, they’d be okay. I didn’t have to see the reunion on the page to know that.
So what did you think of Girls Burn Brighter? Comments are open below. Can’t wait to hear what you thought of this one!