Is it wrong to say I loved a book about child prostitution? Maybe so, but it’s true. The Blue Notebook by James Levine is one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.
The story is about Batuk, a beautiful and imaginative young girl from rural India. Having learned to read during a lengthy hospital stay for TB, she takes solace from her miserable home life in books. Betrayed by her own father, she is sold into the sex slave trade in Mumbai at the age of 9, brutally raped and forcibly introduced to the ways of the street. Stunned and disoriented, survival becomes little Batuk’s main priority.
As a prostitute, she weaves fantastical tales in her blue notebook as a way to remove herself mentally from the filth and scum of the Common Street, a place in Mumbai where she is locked in a “nest” and “makes sweet-cake” with 10 or more men a day. All of her earnings go to pay off her purchase price; she gets nothing. Hungry, filthy, lonely- her pencil and notebook come to mean everything to her. Sold yet again to a wealthy man and taken to a luxurious hotel to show the man’s effeminate and vile son “how to be a husband”, she is abused, attacked, and treated like human garbage. She hangs onto her notebook and continues to write, hiding her scribblings behind the pipes under the bathroom sink.
The subject matter is difficult, but Batuk is an unforgettable character. Through the gift of literacy she manages to rise above her circumstances and hold onto hope for the future. Her imagination sets her free even as she is exploited, beaten, sold, belittled and raped.
The atrocities of Batuk’s existence sickened me. After reading The Blue Notebook, I did some internet searches to find out how many children are in similar circumstances in India. The numbers are staggering and the reasons are complicated, but poverty, illiteracy, hunger, and overpopulation play an enormous role.
James Levine is a brilliant writer. He is a British doctor at the Mayo Clinic who, as part of his research for the Mayo Clinic, interviewed homeless kids on a famous street of prostitution in Mumbai known as The Street of Cages. He noticed a girl writing in a notebook outside of her cage and he interviewed her at length. That powerful image haunted him and launched his career as an author. I hope this book will shine a bright light into this dark global issue.
All of the US proceeds from The Blue Notebook will be donated to the International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children. It will be released in July 2009. I recommend you buy a copy to help this organization and to honor a child you love (you can pre-order before the release).
Thank you to Rochelle Clark at Random House for sending me this extraordinary novel.
Filed under: Book Reviews, books, reading Tagged: | Book Reviews, books, child prostitution, fiction, India, james levine, national center for missing and exploited children, new fiction, reading, the blue notebook