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 ... Once Rao learns to dial down the melodrama, she’ll be a formidable writer.
Girls Burn Brighter is punctuated by vignettes as characters tell each other elaborate stories and relate memories. In these passages, where characters struggle to find meaning in their lives, the quiet power of Rao's prose shines ... Overall the book has enormous emotional power and a compelling narrative that will carry the reader through to its unsettling conclusion. Savitha muses 'anything a person has held is a thing they never really let go.' The novel is a powerful testament to how something as seemingly small as a private friendship between two girls can be a tool to resist oppression.
The cultural value of sons versus daughters and the human need to find something – or someone – to care for are themes that pervade Girls Burn Brighter ... The novel is narrated in alternate sections by Poornima and Savitha, a device which encourages immersion in each girl’s story, although the narrative might have benefited from greater differentiation in their personalities. As Poornima hunts for Savitha, she repeatedly narrowly misses her by a day or two, a structural trope that, by the second half of the novel, begins to test the boundaries of plausibility. However, Rao evokes the landscape of poverty with great skill and sensitivity ... Both Poornima and Savitha endure multiple episodes of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. There are rapes, enforced prostitution, hot oil attacks, forcible drug-taking, amputated limbs. Many of these scenes are rendered viscerally by Rao in deeply affecting prose ... Still, there is much to admire in Rao’s debut novel: it is a timely and harrowing portrayal of human trafficking, cultural misogyny and the battles still fought every day by millions of women worldwide.
Make no mistake about it, Shobha Rao has written a brave, powerful debut. She imbued her women with their own personalities and strengths, held them to the fire, broke them down, and forced them to adapt. I admire her courage in telling this story, but I can only recommend it with caveats. To read this book you’ll also need to be strong and courageous. You need to know that much of the journey will be appalling. It will grab hold of you in ways you won’t like. It still hasn’t let go of me, and I really wish it would.