This may be one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It’s almost the opposite of fairy tale where nothing goes right and everything only ever gets worse. The saddest part of all is the reality of the fictional circumstances we read about. We follow two women who grow up in the same village. The novel jumps between the two characters, almost as if they each have their own novel of their life. The story begins with them as children as they learn the way of the world (in India) and the place of women there. They eventually form a bond with one another, and when they are separated in young adulthood, every bad thing that follows motivates them to find one another again.
I did not know a lot of about this novel going in. It was somewhat disconcerting at first, listening to the narration of the story going from two different characters to two different series of chapters (going 1, 2, 3, 1, 2 etc.). I wasn’t sure if I was that lost or if there was something more going on. When I finally picked up the book and realized the structure of the book, it all made much more sense. Alas, it did effect my enjoyment of the book at first.
Luckily, there was plenty of story that followed that was effective at getting me to care and empathize with the two characters. It is hard not to be infuriated by the things they have to endure. What’s more, it might be easy to judge India for their society, but it is important to remember we are not that far ahead of them when it comes to women’s rights and other human rights. The story reminded me of the Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead, like India, was a very authoritative and hierarchical society where women had little to no rights. Even in regular day life, they are objects and subjects to act and do what is expected of them. There are a never ending supply of injustices inflicted on our characters. Then there is the instinct to escape, or, more aptly in Rao’s novel, an instinct to reunite with the only person they ever truly felt safe with.
The connection with the two characters was a signature part of their relationship. I wish Rao had explored the extent of their connection more fully (I won’t dig too deeply into this to avoid spoilers). This friendship is what the novel revolves around, yet the amount of time we get with them together feels so short. Then when we finally reach the ending, the conclusion was abrupt and even a little ambiguous.
I can see why Rao might choose the type of ending we have; this isn’t a exactly a fairy tale. Not knowing what is to come is simply the reality of life, but I was still left daunting. All there is is hope, something these characters get so little of. 4.5/5 stars, rounding up.