The Blue Notebook by James A Levine

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The Blue Notebook by James A Levine

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: The fictional diary of 15-year-old Butuk, sold by her family in rural India into prostitution aged nine, and now working in Mumbai's notorious Street of Cages, is a harrowing yet often lyrical read. Cautiously recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297855606

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I knew there was not enough of this little pencil to write away my life, but there was enough to start.

James A Levine's debut novel, The Blue Notebook, is one of the most uncomfortable reads I've ever encountered. It opens, diary-style, with its 15-year-old heroine Batuk's delight at obtaining a pencil. She obtains the pencil because her boss, brothel-keeper Mamaki, is distracted, and drops it when one of the other child prostitutes on her section of Mumbai's Street of Cages screams with pain. Batuk treasures her pencil, and uses it to write about her past and present.

To make her life bearable, she has withdrawn into herself, imagining the filthy cage, in which she sleeps and works, covered in gold and inscribed with stories and pictures from her life. With delicate self-deception, Batuk describes the sex she has with up to ten uncles a day as baking sweet-cakes. Yet, Batuk knows this is all pretence – but she must withdraw her soul, in order to endure.

Through Butuk's diary entries, we learn that she was sold, aged barely nine, by her beloved father, to a Mumbai sex trafficker, then auctioned off as a virgin sex prize to the highest bidder. The first hundred pages or so of The Blue Notebook comprise her entries in this notebook, with the latter half being written on paper in a luxury hotel where she is sent to service the needs of a wealthy businessman's spoilt, sadistic son. This second half is not as successful as the first, taking on a somewhat melodramatic and prurient air which sits uncomfortably with the many instances of Batuk's sexual exploitation. However, that first half, with this lovely flower Batuk blooming on a dung-heap, moved me to tears, even though it was excruciatingly painful to read.

At times, its subject and delivery are so harrowing, I found myself skipping a few paragraphs, not because of the standard of the writing, but because I began to feel like a voyeur in Batuk's degradation, and somehow party to it. Also, notwithstanding Batuk's intelligence and spirit, there are times when the thoughts attributed to her by Levine seem too sophisticated for a girl who has been ritually abused and incarcerated for six years so crucial to her development. Batuk's character shifts between being extreme naivete and wisdom beyond her years and experience, which does occasionally jar. However, it is so hard to imagine the mind-set of someone in her situation, Levine has to be admired for trying.

The author was inspired to write Batuk's tale when he saw a young prostitute on Mumbai's Street of Cages writing in a notebook, and interviewed her about her life. If this book raises consciousness about these child sex workers, it will have done its work. To this end Levine is involved in setting up the Batuk Foundation for the eradication of child prostitution.

Thanks to the nice people at Weidenfeld & Nicolson for sending The Blue Notebook to Bookbag. While not entirely successful in its realisation, the character of Batuk will linger in my mind for a long time.

Animal's People by Indra Sinha would make ideal further reading. It's set in India, with its eponymous hero a 19-year-old street scavenger.

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Eva Espolita said:

I can't believe, that Batuk is a fiction novel. I felt so close to her, living the traumatismes and finding a way out of the suffering through inventing of stories and writing. the moment, she was raped as a virgin is exactly how I felt during a near-death experience and I could get out of it through writing and creating of fiction stories.....

I am sort of relieved, that Batuk didn't die in the end of the book, because she didn't exist really, but the book is "only" a powerful voice for all the others who go through, what she writes about. I was so deeply moved by the book, that I had to find out, if she was still alive and then I came across the James Levine - informations.

Congratulations, Mr Levine, you have written this book with an enormous amount of understanding and sensitivity. Thanks. Best regards,