Witness the Night, by Kishwar Desai

 

A terrible tragedy has occurred in a small town in India. Thirteen members of a family have been murdered and then their house set on fire. A young girl, Durga, the daughter of the family, has been found in the wreckage, beaten and abused, and is now in prison, suspected of having caused the deaths. Simran Singh is the social worker assigned to the case. A small-town girl herself, she has rebelled against the traditional path that is laid out for her, and is now an independent, single woman in her mid-40s, who eagerly looks forward to the evening when she can drink her assortment of alcoholic beverages in private, without disapproval from others.

 

I really loved this debut novel. Most of it is told from the perspective of Simran, and through her memories of her own life and her prickly relationship with her mother, as well as the horrifying tale of Durga and her sister Sharda, I was moved to shock, anger and pity at this society and its old-fashioned, rigid and evil ways. Simran, one feels representing the author's opinions, exposes not only hypocrisy but systematic abuse and violence against babies and girls, done in the name of honour and financial gain. Some sections of the book consist of emails between Simran and Binda, Durga's sister-in-law who left the fated house just before the atrocity, in order to go back to her family in Southall to have her first child. Binda represents another type of Indian, one who was born and raised in England but who has travelled to India for her arranged marriage to one of Durga's brothers. Another part of the novel, the most poignant and moving part, is told by Durga herself, as a diary written in prison.

Although the book does not hold up too well as a crime novel, it is excellent. The main character is a great invention, and I hope she'll return. She deals with the prejudiced and patriarchal society in which she lives with humour, resolve and determination, simply refusing to bow down or accept that other people's rules apply to her. In addition, the story of Durga's and Sharda's history is truly appalling, and one that can only make the reader's blood boil. This is an excellent, no-holds-barred and moving account, with a clear moral tone that adds resonance to the whole.

Review first published at Euro Crime, August 2010.

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This entry was posted in Asia, Books, Crime fiction, Debut, England, Europe, India, Psychology, Social comment and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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