Title: Fifteen Lanes (2016)
Author: S. J. Laidlaw
Genre: Young Adult, Cultural
Extent: 304 pages
Release Date: April 5, 2016
Noor has lived all of her fourteen years in the fifteen lanes of Mumbai’s red light district. Born into a brothel, she is destined for the same fate as her mother: a desperate life trapped in the city’s sex trade. She must act soon to have any chance of escaping this grim future.
Across the sprawling city, fifteen-year-old Grace enjoys a life of privilege. Her father, the CEO of one of India’s largest international banks, has brought his family to Mumbai where they live in unparalleled luxury. But Grace’s seemingly perfect life is shattered when she becomes a victim of a cruel online attack.
When their paths intersect, Noor and Grace will be changed forever. Can two girls living in vastly different worlds find a common path?
This book is not for the faint-hearted. I went in expecting something a la Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine — a little bit of romance, a little bit of drama, maybe some shocking scenes — and I have to say, Fifteen Lanes had no romance, more drama, and a LOT of shocking scenes.
This book made me think about the nitty-gritty, everyday details of living in the Mumbai slums. Where do you sleep? How can you afford it? Where do you get food? Where do you take care of business? What happens if you’re sick? Can you even afford going to the hospital? Apart from selling your body, what else can you do to make money? If someone wrongs you — stabs you, rapes you, steals your things — can anyone help? (The answer in this book is no.)
I’m ashamed to say that I never thought about these things before this book. Sure, I’ve watched documentaries on bride-kidnapping and prostitutes and hostesses and hosts, but those only really show what’s ‘safe for work’ (so to speak). Fifteen Lanes went deeper than that and unearths the dirty, the messy, the things people don’t think about and often take for granted. In this aspect, this book was incredibly eye-opening.
“How much for the girl?” he demanded.
“She’s not yet working.”
“I’d pay a lot for a fresh girl.”
We have two main characters here: Noor, child of a sex worker and eldest of two, born and raised in the slums, and Grace, child of a widely respected CEO, international school student, and (written as) somewhat a spoiled, much-loved yet lonely kid. Their two worlds are incredibly, incredibly different, and Laidlaw tried to make their world collide. Keyword, unfortunately, being tried.
One of the main issues with this is that it took way, way too long for these two characters to meet. Laidlaw went back into the past (particularly Noor’s history), and it took maybe about 50% of the book for the plot to actually pick up and for things to start becoming interesting. Unfortunately, this makes the second half of the book feel kind of rushed and the friendship between Grace and Noor more shallow and forced than anything else.
I also don’t think I got anything from Grace’s perspective. Hers is one that we read about in a lot of contemporary YA books today, and I didn’t think it was particularly engaging, nor did I think it has to be her whose life we as readers compare to Noor’s. It just wasn’t unique, and since Noor’s story was so incredibly engrossing and full of fears and horrors, Grace’s just fell short. A part of me strongly believes that Noor’s story, without Grace’s, would have made this a stronger book than as is.
My two selves—the school-going girl and the daughter of a sex worker—felt like two separate people, awkwardly inhabiting one body. I was like a hijra, not one thing and not the other, but a third thing entirely, unique and not happily so.
Additionally, timeline-wise it was really confusing. We get chapters alternating between Grace’s perspective and Noor’s perspective, but these two move at different paces. Grace’s timeline starts in the present day and time, whereas Noor’s timeline starts months and years ago, all the way back before her brother was born. It wasn’t exactly clarified either for each chapter, so I was left guessing for a bit, and this definitely impacted my immersion in the book.
All complaints aside, though, this book is chockful of grey characters (essentially characters that are not all good, all bad, and are generally multi-dimensional), particularly in Noor’s story. I’m especially intrigued with Noor’s sex worker mother, who wanted a better future for her kids and was beat down by her own life, and Noor’s best friend Pavarti, whose life is even sadder and even more horrifying than Noor’s. These two characters might just be supporting characters, but they hold their own and they definitely have their own stories to tell.
“There is a whole world of possibilities beyond our fifteen lanes. Don’t you want more for yourself?”
Fifteen Lanes is an incredibly eye-opening, important book about two girls with incredibly different lives. It’s about fighting back even when the whole world wants to push you down, about surviving when you have no one on your side, about making the most of the cards you’ve been dealt and never giving up. If some of the plot and storytelling issues were resolved, this book would have been simply revolutionary.
* I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This in no way swayed my opinion of the book.