Another book review brought to you by "Embarassing LibraryThing Early Reviewers Backlog." Today we have, The Blue Notebook by James Levine, arguably the hardest book I've read all year. It's not hard because of the writing, but the subject matter is downright painful.
The Blue Notebook is the story of Batuk, an Indian girl who was sold by her father into sex slavery at the age of nine. When the story begins, Batuk is nested on the Common Street in Mumbai, and at the age of fifteen she is already very well acquainted with the practice of pleasuring her male clients, which she refers to as "making sweet-cake." Batuk knows the tricks of her trade too well for one so young. Batuk has a secret refuge, though, a refuge few of her counterparts can claim. Despite being from a poor rural village, Batuk can read and write, and her words become her refuge and her preservation from a cruel way of life.
And so I look within myself and assemble myself in words. I take the words that are my thoughts and dreams and hide them behind the dark shadow of my kidney. I compress my need for love into words and hide that as a drop of blackness next to my liver (it will be safe there until I need it). I transcribe the poetry of life into words, and with care slide it between sinews of muscle where he will not find it. I craft the words of merriment and sadness (they are the same) into a pyramid and place it under my skin so I can touch it whenever I need to know where my feelings are. I compile my memories into a record full of words and slip that into a slot left open for it in my head. There is plenty of room for all the words in the world to live in me; they are welcome here. He may have taken my light and extinguished it, but now within me can hide an army of whispering syllables, rhythms, and sounds. All you may see is a black cavity that fills a tiny girl, but trust me, the words are there, alive and fine.
Levine paints a raw, gritty and painfully real picture of Mumbai and molds a smart, strong, sympathetic narrator whose only worth in the world has been reduced to what men will pay to have her. Levine shies away from none of the rough edges or the harsh realities of Mumbai itself, nor does he let us look away from the constant struggle that is Batuk's life as she learns her trade and discovers how she has to survive in the new life she's been forced into. Levine gives us a girl, though, whose indomitable spirit and her refuge in the written word sustains her through a life filled with tragedy that is difficult even to read about. Levine's prose is full of vivid descriptions and is even poetic in its own way, but my one complaint would be that sometimes he lets his prose get away from him. There are places where it's better to state the obvious instead of going the more flowery route. For example...
With a big brown brush she wiped cream under my armpit nearest her and shaved off the early grasses of womanhood using a razor.
That one earned an emphatic eye roll from me. (I mean, "early grasses of womanhood".....really?) Thankfully, this is one of only a few rare occasions where Levine seems to get carried away in his efforts to enrich his prose.
The Blue Notebook is a profound and unflinching work of fiction. It's not the sort of book that you're liable to enjoy, but it is an important and eye-opening work that should be read. Even more, it is a book that should be bought because all of the U.S. proceeds from the sale of The Blue Notebook are being donated to the International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children.