Fifteen Lanes by S.J. Laidlaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Fifteen Lanes begins as an almost entirely disparate story of two girls in India. Grace, a European girl attending private school in Mumbai, is being mercilessly bullied after a topless picture of her circulates around the school. Meanwhile, Noor, the pre-teen daughter of a sex worker, is struggling to keep her family alive and herself out of the sex work business.
What I was expecting from this was some neo-imperialist white-girl-saves-the-day trash, but what I read was anything but.
First off, I should have read the author's bio before diving into her novel. Laidlaw herself volunteers at an NGO facility in Mumbai where the story takes place. To quote her author's note from the e-book, "I still have no illusions that I've transformed their lives, but I have no doubt they've changed mine." And it's exactly with this philosophy that the character Grace approaches her work with NGO.
The real incredible thing about this novel is that neither girl's suffering invalidates the other. Out of context, a borderline suicidal and friendless girl is undeniably facing a life of hardship. You would think that pitting Grace against Noor, who either lives on the street or watches her mother and "Aunties" used by countless men, would make her seem whiny. But Noor herself doesn't look down on Grace. When the two meet, they provide what the other needs most free of condescension. Grace gains a friend and someone who will listen to her while Noor gains outside help and a perspective that life can be better.
In fact, by the end of the book, I would even argue that Noor and Grace's struggles aren't even the central problem. In Grace's life there is VJ, the rich son of a Bollywood star who can't come out of the closet to his traditional parents or his fans. In Noor's world, there is her mother, an HIV positive woman in her 20s who is slowly dying, her sister, who is just barely old enough to understand their world, and her brother, an HIV positive toddler who isn't expected to live into childhood. On top of that, her best friend Parvati, who I'd argue is the true victim of the story, is raped in forced into sex slavery by the age of fourteen.
Laidlaw's world is well-researched and her characters unique and complex. Above all, I praise her for not pulling the white-girl-saves-all card. Grace and VJ help, but they do not necessarily change Noor's life. If you will all pardon the slight spoiler, my favorite part about this book is that everyone who ultimately saves Noor comes from her own community.
If you're like me and love to read about real struggles happening in the world sans condescension, I recommend this book wholeheartedly!
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