Sometimes you find a book that you know tackles an important, scary, or terrible issue but it's hard to make yourself face reading it because you know it's going to rip your heart out and make you face the evil of the world. James Levine's The Blue Notebook is one of those books. Tackling the horrific topic of child prostitution and abuse in India, this novel is difficult to read, graphic, and unfortunately more real than not.
Narrator Batuk is take from her small village to Mumbai and sold into prostitution by her father when she is just nine years old. She lives in a tiny "nest" on the street and she must solicit business from here, retreating behind a curtain to service her customers, or as she calls it "making sweet-cake," in order to ensure the continued happiness and wealth of her keepers, a large woman named Mamaki Briila and the more distant Master Gahil. Batuk details her story and experiences in a small blue notebook she keeps hidden and with a stub of a pencil inadvertantly dropped one day by Mamaki Briila. She tells of her early life at home as the apple of her father's eye and how unexpected it was for her, seemingly secure in her father's love, to be so callously sold into prostitution. She talks about her unspoiled beauty and the sale of her virginity to the highest bidder. She writes of her experiences in various underground places designed to make her compliant, sexually skilled, and appreciative of the tiny nest she calls her own when the novel opens. She captures her fellow sex workers, especially her best friend Puneet, a beautiful boy who is eventually castrated to preserve his youthful beauty. And she writes of learning to be exceptional at her job as a way to minimize how much she must do: the better she performs sexual acts, the sooner the men who visit her will be satisfied, pay, and leave.
There is a detached resignation to the writing here with Batuk telling her tale matter of factly and from a remove, even as she lives with the horror daily. And while the distance might be necessary so as not to overwhelm the reader, it also serves to minimize the emotional impact of the story, making the tale less visceral and less immediate. Batuk's life is in fact horrific and given that she was sold by her own father at such a young age, she has had less than no input into her own fate and prospects. She is completely owned by others and will be deemed disposable once she can no longer attract paying clients. Her voice here is not particularly true to her experience. The mix of maturity and naivete works but her eloquence and educated language are completely unbelievable no matter how smart she is given her upbringing and exposure thus far in her life. There are many graphic acts of violence and sex detailed and reading them is not for the faint of heart, especially as the depravity escalates. In the end, while this novel shines a light on the exploitation and abuse of innocents, it offers no hope for the future of those trapped in a hell not of their own making.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.