There have been many contenders for the Millennium Series crown, and a hell of a lot of scrabbling within the industry for the next bestselling thriller with characters as memorable as Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. No 'next-best-thing' novel this reader has perused so far however, has been as literary, bold and compelling as the COSTA New Book Award 2010 winner Witness the Night by debut novelist Kishwar Desai.
I read this book in about three hours. It isn't that it's short - it is a taught, gripping and complex thriller with two enigmatic heroines at its core. The hold this book had on me saw me walking through the security gate in JFK still reading it [I was told to go back and put the book in the plastic tub - which still didn't stop me finishing it before the plane took off.]
A townhouse in central India is covered with the blood of its dead inhabitants. One of them, 14 year old Durga, daughter of the deceased, is found raped, but alive. A corrupt legal system arrests her and charges her with thirteen murders. Social worker Simran, a warm and whisky-swilling 45 year old, has a matter of days to clear Durga's name. But is Durga innocent? Or could she really have murdered her entire family?
I won't skirt the central issue of the book - this is a novel that talks frankly about equality, that demands women be seen as equal to men, that will not accept an India that denies there is a dangerous and fatal perception of women as worthless - better off dead. This theme clearly runs throughout the story, but Desai does not shy away from making this clear in her literary choices as well. It's refreshing to read a book that portrays a teenage girl and an 'older' woman with such complexity and understanding, with light and shade - toying with the concepts of guilt and innocence through the conduit of Durga's criminal case.
Despite its dark subject, this is a pleasing read, boasting a complex plot made accessible by Desai's very direct voice and sumptuous prose. Desai has created rich characters and a thriller about women that speaks to all the sexes. Readers: if you liked Stieg Larsson's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, this is the book for your summer/autumn 2011. I dare you - woman, man, neither or both - not to love Witness The Night.
Psst: This book has film written all over it. My pick to star as Simran for the movie version is hot Brit actress Archie Panjabi.