At the core of Shobha Rao’s magnificent and heart-wrenching debut novel is a unique friendship forged between two young women from a small Indian village. Poornima and Savitha’s bond sustains them despite insurmountable odds; their first obstacle is simply being born into a community that celebrates the births of sons but considers daughters as objects to be married off as soon as possible.
After 15-year-old Poornima’s mother dies and the traditional year of mourning has passed, her father contacts the local matchmaker to find her a suitable husband. At the same time, Poornima meets Savitha, who is a year older than Poornima and from an even poorer family. With three younger sisters, a chronically ill father and a mother who cleans houses, Savitha is forced to scour the garbage dumps daily for food, or perhaps something to sell.
Poornima’s father, a sari weaver, is looking for someone to sit at his dead wife’s loom to help increase his output, so Savitha fills that position and becomes Poornima’s close friend. Despite her dire circumstances, Savitha is full of joy and hope—feelings that Poornima has all but forgotten.
When a probable match for Poornima is found in a distant village, the girls plan ways to stay in touch after the marriage. But suddenly Savitha becomes the victim of a horrific crime, and she disappears—without telling Poornima where she is going.
Rao fills the second half of her captivating novel with the devastating circumstances that engulf these young women over the next several years. From extreme cruelty to kidnapping and entrapment in a sexual slavery ring, each traumatic experience keeps them separated by thousands of miles, and finding a way to meet again seems impossible.
Girls Burn Brighter focuses an enlightening lens on contemporary headlines that often seem abstract. Readers of Rao’s vital, vibrant novel will not soon forget these two strong, driven young women.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Behind the Book essay from Shobha Rao on Girls Burn Brighter.