Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

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Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Milli Pithie
Reviewed by Milli Pithie
Summary: An interesting insight into women's issues in India clumsily forced into a severely disappointing narrative.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Beautiful Books
ISBN: 978-1905636853

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The book opens on a disturbing dream sequence (or is it a memory?) that sets up the murder which is to be at the centre of this book. Durga, a young girl living in Julundur, is instructed by a mysterious male character to return to the house from which she has just fled, the house in which her whole family lies dead- poisoned, stabbed and partly scorched. There Durga is tied up, having been attacked and raped.

The main part of the novel is from Simran's perspective and through her we learn that Durga has been arrested for the murder of her family. Simran, a social worker called in to help by the police, strongly believes Durga to be innocent and sets out to discover the truth. Whilst trying to gain Durga's trust, and meeting with local contacts who might be able to help out, Simran finds that people aren't always what they seem. More importantly, she comes to terms with the reality of the persecution faced by girls in India at the attitudes that keep such hatred alive.

Simran's investigative style is a little lacking when compared to that of more established fictional sleuths. Holmes uses his powers of deduction and observation; Miss Marple relies on gossip and social know-how; Poirot uses a keen eye, psychology and his 'little grey cells'; more modern investigators work with forensic evidence. Simran, on the other hand, does not use forensics, nor does she really use her mind. The information she receives is wilfully given to her by other characters, and not because she has any persuasive skill at all. To add to this, I found her extremely irritating.

Though she tries to portray herself as a rebellious alcoholic, she is painfully self-righteous and that counters all the lovability a tear-away singleton might otherwise possess. I said that Simran does not use her mind, but this is not entirely true. The book is full of self-questioning, theorisation and voiced suspicions. Yet these are thrown about aimlessly, often stating an obvious fact that the reader will already have considered, and they never demonstrate real intelligence. Perhaps it is because I did not warm to Simran, or that as I read she was only ever a half-formed character in my mind, that I did not enjoy the book.

Yet the mystery plot probably played a more powerful role in evoking my disfavour. It is obvious from an early point where the story is going. Yet even with such a straightforward story, the plot took an odd shape. Things just happened, without really flowing on from the previous section. I think there may have been a few 'twists', but I couldn't say for sure because nothing was surprising. It just didn't work as a mystery. It simply wasn't mysterious enough. The only character who did briefly excite me was the unwelcoming servant of the Atwal household, and though he plays a part, it wasn't enough to keep my curiosity alive.

The writing improves towards the end, and the final chapter is actually alright. But ultimately, I wish Desai had written a non-fiction book about the treatment of women in India. There are passages of fact sitting in this narrative, which in the fictional context read like random angry lectures, yet whilst they disrupt the novel, they are clearly the tip of a huge, interesting, heart-breaking topic which I want to hear more about. Strip away the half-baked characters, the awkward dialogue, the murder mystery with no real suspects, and take the nuggets of terrible truth, the facts of female life in India, and there you have the seeds which, unfortunately, have been sown in the wrong field. Dig them up, Desai, and plant them where they belong, in a non-fiction essay about ongoing infanticide, persecution and pain.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Readers interested in India may like The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

Buy Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai at Amazon.com.


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Robert Wilson said:

Like your reviewer, I too wish that Kishwar Desai had written the book as a non-fiction account rather than in novel form.

Your reviewer's final paragraph encapsulates a key problem that the author had and which she did not solve: for the typical reader, there was so much background information that had to be imparted and some sections of the book are heavily didactic, with the writing almost in conference-paper form. At these points, the novel (as a novel) grinds to a halt for a while.

Kishwar Desai came to Aberdeen recently, by invitation, and spoke not about her novel as a novel but about the issues to which her book relates. She spoke extremely well, not only in her presentation but also in her handling of questions from the floor. She convinced me that she has the attributes to write a non-fictional account that would be extremely powerful. Whether anyone would publish it, of course, is another matter. At least this version of what she wants to bring to the world's attention has been published.

She told us that some folk are encouraging her to put her fictional social worker sleuth onto another case, and another issue. Like your reviewer, I wish she would continue publicising the issues raised by her novel, but in a very different format.

Robert Wilson

Aberdeen