Girls Burn Brighter by Shoba Rao

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Girls Burn Brighter is a compelling tale of love, friendship, and self-exploration. But mostly survival. It is the heart-wrenching story of being a girl in India and the possibilities beyond a fate.

Her name, Poornima is a constant reminder of what she is not. She is not a source of income, an economic burden to her family. She is not a boy. At sixteen, with the loss of her mother, Poornima is relegated to domestic servitude to care about her four other siblings and father. She is destined to be married off at sixteen. But she yearns always to find a more significant meaning of life, beyond her gender. That is when she meets her. “She’d never known a hand could do that; contain so much purpose.”

Savitha, named after the eclipse carries a persistent fierce light in her spirit. The lack of food in the pots has forced this teenager to find work for her family. He father is a drunk and begs at the temple for food and money. Savitha has sat at a loom before; she knows how to weave threads, and this is where the start of a bright friendship begins.

Poornima and her father have two looms, a place where saris and income for family life take place. Since her mother’s death, the loom sits bare, until one-day Savitha appears. There is something different about Savitha. Is it her conviction? Or her purpose?

Two more different teenagers will forge an unbreakable bond, even when life casts them unthinkable sorrow.

The setting is Indravalli, near Andhra Pradesh in India. Rao takes us on a journey of lush mountains graced with sacred temples. An experience rich in Hindu traditions such as burning lights on holy mountains, ceremonial garlands of marigolds, and sagely sadhus performing pujas. As these images are stunning, there is another side to India that is less romantic. Poverty, huts clung together by cow dung, landscaped by old scraps of food, hands tiring from begging, caste systems, and dark history of exploitation. Such poverty lines the vibrant greens of rice fields and mountains.

Beautifully written novel. Analogies are eloquently described providing rich prose. Poornima and Savith are skillfully developed characters with their personalities unfolding with grace. Poornima’s mother, a recent memory is so vividly, and you can feel her presence, her love, her embrace. And you can see also taste the pain and humiliation that only comes by being born female in a country that discards women with a simple push.

Girls Burn Brighter book is my first reading experience with the author Shobha Rao. My travels to South India has undoubtedly played a role in my enjoyment of the story and setting, but it is not essential. I am excited to discover more of Rao’s writing.

Thank you, Flatiron Books for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.

PHOTO: On top of Mount Arunachala, one of the five holiest places in India 

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