Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Review: The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

Don't judge a book by its cover. We've all heard that, right? Well, this book, with it's fun and appealing cover can indeed be judged on its wrapping. Although perhaps in this case, it would be appropriate to suggest that the cover doesn't show the depth and serious topics included here in a story that superficially matches its light-hearted cover. Parini Shroff's new novel, The Bandit Queens, is that tricky balancing act, a delightful novel filled with incredibly difficult topics but liberally laced through with humor and good feeling.

Geeta's abusive, alcoholic husband disappeared five years ago and the rumor in town is that she killed him even though she is adamant that she didn't. Her only friendship fell apart years ago for reasons that are only slowly revealed, leaving her to become a curmudgeonly loner, mostly avoided by her fellow women and whispered about by their children. She's a member of a business cooperative with several other women because she needs to earn a living now that she's a widow but even in this business dependency, she has never been entirely accepted by her fellow businesswomen. Unlike the other women in the group, she does not ignore it when one of the other women is once again beaten badly by her husband but she is appalled when that woman comes to her for her help in ridding her of her terrible husband as she assumes Geeta did to her own. And she is not the last woman from the group who seeks Geeta's help in "removing her nose ring."

This is not just a romp about killing terrible men though. There is real depth and complexity here to not only Geeta but to the other side characters, female and male, as well. And the story addresses far more than just abused women bumping off their abusers. Geeta's a wonderful, awkward, emotionally damaged character and Shroff uses her beautifully to explore the problems of caste, the disgrace of childlessness, the patriarchy, abuse, women's strength, and more. The title refers to the very real Indian folk hero, Phoolan Devi, who escaped a horrific marriage, became a bandit, and revenged herself on not only the men who terrorized her but those who abused and terrorized other women, all on her way to becoming an elected official in India's Parliament. She is Geeta's hero and gives her the inspiration and strength to keep moving forward through all of Geeta's own trials. The twists and turns the novel take keep surprising the reader, making for a lightly suspenseful tale. This is a clever, engaging, and serious look at life for women in a small Indian town with a main character you can't help but root for.

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