Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: The Blue Notebook--A Novel, by James A. Levine, MD

Despite a lifetime of reading, a book has never had the power to keep me from falling asleep, but last night, a novel kept me awake all night.  I was reading an advance copy of The Blue Notebook by James Levine, MD, and couldn't put the book down until I finished it around 3:00 a.m.  Even at that hour I didn't dare to go to sleep until I'd read a few pages in a "quieter, gentler" novel so that I wouldn't dream about The Blue Notebook.  

The reality of child prostitution in Mumbai which is the basis for this compelling, eloquent novel, is worse than any nightmare; however, the story develops with a balance of frankness and artistic imagination which makes it possible to stick with the characters in spite of a sickening feeling in the pit of one's stomach. 

How can childlike innocence coexist with the spiritual and physical pollution of child prostitution?  How can we accept the literary conceit that a fifteen-year-old female Indian prostitute can write and keep a hidden diary?  How can her voice sustain and support the entire novel?  Usually, in works of this type, there will be a major collapse somewhere in the composition which tests our patience too much.  In my opinion, this did not occur in The Blue Notebook, making this the most extraordinary novel I've read in many years. 

According to his publisher, author James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, was doing research, "interviewing homeless kids on a famous street of prostitution in Mumbai known as the Street of Cages.  A young woman writing in a notebook outside of her cage caught his attention, and he interviewed her at length.  The powerful image of a young prostitute engaged in the act of writing haunted him," and this novel is the result.

Filled with skepticism, I began reading, but already by page three I was gripped by the story and enchanted by the voice of little "Batuk."  By page six I had developed strong feelings about Batuk's best friend, Puneet (the only boy in the prostitution house) and their "keeper" (Mamaki).  Throughout the book, skillful flashbacks, plot movement, and even minor characters converged to make me care very much about what would happen next and how Batuk would fare.  Descriptions of physical cruelty, perhaps because they are written by a medical professional, are not sensationalized, which builds confidence in the accuracy which informs the entire novel.

One of the most engaging aspects of the prose is Batuk's description of her world in "her own words", capturing glimpses of nature's beauty (sunrise, dusk, water), odors, animistic spirits of such things as trees.  There is her own story-within-a-story ("The Grain of Rice") and her father's story to her about "the silver-eyed leopard," plus some striking poetry, which convey something of the cultural and literary surroundings of Mumbai.  The possibility of beauty makes Batuk's horrible reality all the more poignant. 

These literary enhancements are so well integrated that they do not slow down the story.  Their timing also gives one a chance to draw a deep breath after reading tensely through the ordeals of Batuk—sold to an 'uncle' by the father whom she believes (and continues to believe) adores her, raped by another 'uncle', broken by a cruel gang in an orphanage, enslaved in the brothel…these events are just the beginning, and I won't spoil the story by adding more to the list.

Obviously, this is not a novel for the faint-of-heart or for young children, but it is an important work to be explored by thinking adults.  I believe that Dr. Levine wrote the book to raise awareness and a sense of responsibility among readers who would take a serious look at the efforts of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children ( and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (   Furthermore, all of the author's U.S. royalties will be donated to these organizations.  Here's one book you can buy without guilt.

The Blue Notebook illustrates the depths of human cruelty, but the spirit of its heroine offers a glimmer of hope.  Mumbai is a complex, multi-cultural, multi-faceted city of extremes from which much interesting writing has emerged recently for western readers.  Some recommendable books that help round out this fascinating place include Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, Q & A (or Slumdog Millionaire) by Vikas Swarup, Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra, and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, to name but a few.

Thank you, Spiegel & Grau Publishers and LibraryThing, for the opportunity to read and review this exceptionally powerful and lyrical debut novel.


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