Author: Savita Kalhan
Edition: UK paperback
Publication date: 29th March 2018
Read: 25th – 30th October
TWs: Rape, assault, attempted suicide, emotional manipulation, PTSD, death of a parent (not on-page)
Jay’s creative writing exercise is to write a fairy tale, to end with ‘they lived happily ever after’. But the way her life is panning out she’s not sure it will ever reach that stage. She and her mother are moving in with distant relatives, and they have super strict rules for girls. Jay is expected to have only Indian friends, if she has any all all. How can she see her school friends, Chloe and Matt?
But this is only the beginning of a nightmare for Jay. When her life implodes, how can she hide from the shame – and how will she find a way to keep going?
A moving, gripping story, which explores themes of family, loyalty and culture clashes, but is ultimately about hope and understanding.
The Girl in the Broken Mirror is first and foremost a tale of survival. It’s a story about one girl’s trauma and healing, and is likely one of the most powerful, heart-wrenching books you’ll read this year. But it also comes with trigger warnings for rape and attempted suicide, so if you don’t feel comfortable reading about these topics then this book might not be one for you. Just as a heads up, these topics will also be mentioned in this review.
The plot follows Jay, a British-Asian teenager, as she and her mother move in with her relatives after struggling to pay rent on their London flat. While living there, Jay has to deal with culture clashes and her auntie’s strictly imposed rules. Living in the house is unenjoyable but bearable until one night, after a family party, Jay is physically abused and raped.
The first chapter deals with the immediate aftermath of the rape, setting readers up for a harrowing and compelling novel. Jay is underage, and the narrative pulls no punches in describing what a 15-year-old girl has to go through – emotionally and physically – after such an event. The book then moves back in time to several months before the night of the party, when Jay was happier and focused on school. The contrast is stark, and makes our knowledge of what is to come next all the more foreboding.
After Jay is raped, the tone of the book becomes increasingly dark as she struggles to deal with the ensuing guilt and feelings of worthlessness. The rape is described through a dream but is still graphic, so this is book isn’t suitable for younger teens; however, Kalhan does an incredibly sensitive job of narrating the emotions that Jay goes through as a survivor. The stages of grief, anger, and recovery are examined in intense detail, and the narrative is instilled with so much feeling that we can empathise with Jay on an intrinsic level, feeling the same emotions of horror, disgust, rage, emptiness and hope as she does.
Savita Kalhan intersects themes of family, identity, and cultural norms throughout the book, which is own voices and has British-Asian and Indian rep. Jay was born in the UK, but her parents are Indian, and like her father, she prefers to dress in a western style and channel western cultural norms. She clashes with her auntie, who wants to impose a more traditionally Indian upbringing on her, forcing her to change her style of clothing, and refusing to let her see her friends who aren’t Indian. These divides in identity are explored in a nuanced and interesting way, as Jay struggles with the two facets of her identity. The strength with which her family try to impose their Indian heritage upon her makes her want to reject it because of the way it’s forced upon her. Only later in the book, when Jay is in a safe and comforting environment does she begin to enjoy elements of Indian culture more.
Characterisation is one of the main strengths of the book. The characters of Jay, her mother, auntie, and friend Matt are all brought to life with realistic detail. Sita was one of my favourite characters because of the maternal role she plays in helping Jay grieve and heal when she can’t face talking to her mum. Sita strikes a balance between compassion and gentle sternness, and she knows the kind of love and affection to offer Jay as she processes the event. Jay’s personality changes after the rape as she tries to shield her mind from the trauma of reliving the event. She describes herself as ‘before’ and ‘after’, thinking about how she’ll never been the same person she was before again. Kalhan doesn’t fall into the trap of attempting to offer us a formulaic happy ending (which would be a disservice to the rest of the book as well as to rape survivors), but she does sow glimmers of hope into the final chapters of the novel, suggesting that the love of family and friends is a key factor in recovery and moving towards the future.
The Girl In The Broken Mirror also gives readers a piercing reminder of all the reasons young women have for not wanting to come forward after assault. Fear of being attacked again and of not being believed, shame about the event, and the idea of being ‘unwanted’ or ‘unlovable’ all combine to show the truly abhorrent nature of the situation for women. This book excels in denouncing victim blaming and showing the psychological power imbalance between rapists and survivors – an imbalance that is fed by society’s willingness to blame or disbelieve the survivors. But this is not the case here. Jay is believed without question by those she tells and the only person ever blamed for the atrocity is the rapist. Society could take a leaf out of this book in its reactions to women’s abuse.
Although stark and harrowing at times, The Girl In The Broken Mirror is an incredibly important read in our current global political climate. It illustrates how male entitlement can tear apart women’s lives, and serves as a visceral reminder that we shouldn’t be teaching women how to avoid getting raped, but should be teaching men not to rape. Through themes of grief, healing, and love, the book shows the incredible reserves of inner strength that women use on a daily basis and promotes women’s solidarity in all walks of life.
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