Author: James A. Levine
Paperback: 210 pages (ARC)
Acquired: won through LibraryThing’s ER March 2009 batch
The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine is a fictional novel told from the point of view of Batuk Ramasdeen, a 15-year-old prostitute living in a closet-sized “nest”, as she calls it. It is written like a journal or diary and gives a graphic glimpse of the life of a child sex slave. While it’s called “The Blue Notebook”, it is written in three separate collections of pages, the first being contained in the blue notebook for which the book is named, while the other two sections were written on hotel paper then later plain paper. The reason I mention this is because, in a lot of ways, this book felt like two separate and distinct stories, falling in these different segments.
The first part, the part written in the blue notebook, was inspired by Levine’s experiences when he traveled to Mumbai as part of a research trip for his work at the Mayo Clinic. While there, he interviewed several street kids on the infamous Street of Cages, when he noticed a child prostitute writing in a notebook. He talked with her for a long time and her story and what he saw there stuck with him and led him to writing this book in hopes of shining a light on the tragic events occurring to such young children, stealing their childhoods, their souls, and often their very lives.
“The Blue Notebook” section is hauntingly real and fairly true to the character of Batuk as a young girl who was sold into prostitution by her own father at the age of 9. Now 15, Batuk is an adult woman, aware of her sexual allure, one second, then a playful, giggling, daydreaming child the next, writing stories and telling jokes to cheer up her friend. She tells us from the beginning that she is prone to waxing dramatic, and, at times, her writing has a poetic beauty to it, with metaphors and stunning word pictures. It does have some amount of stream of conciousness to it, as she may be talking about having sex with the men in one sentence and then write about some event back home before being brought to Mumbai in the next.
Batuk is unusual for a child of the streets, and even unusual for the men that she services, in that she can read and write. She tells of having TB and spending 12 weeks in a missionary hospital where she had had the privilege of a tutor three times a week and was even sent away with a goodbye gift of a box full of books for her to keep. As soon as they’re home, she has her father close his eyes as she reads a story to her father and then waits for his reaction.
Father did not say a word until I finished. As I concluded the story, I peeked under his hat; his eyes were shiny and tears were streaming down his face. He just stared at me. “Father, there are happier stories, let me…” “Batuk, that is not why I am crying. I never imagined that any child of mine would ever learn to read… this is your ticket out of Dreepah-Jil.” He caught his thoughts and continued to speak excitedly. “We will have to find you a teacher… One day you will be a… doctor, a lawyer.” I interrupted, “Or a teacher.” “Yes, darling, or a great teacher, Batuk. Come to me.” I went to my father with another book tucked under my arm, the magical abhang poems of Namdev. As I read words I barely understood and soaked them within me, my father held me. That night we both created dreams for me. Neither he nor I ever aspired to my becoming a prostitute.(embolden added)
–The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine, page 82 (ARC)
While “The Blue Notebook” section is stark and unvarnished glimpse into the lives of the street children, most all-too-short lives, at that, the remainder of the book is crap, to be honest. I could really feel the children who had inspired Levine in the first segment, but in the second half of the book, it all felt sleazy. It felt like I was reading snuff kiddie porn. I’m not giving anything away, I don’t think, in telling you Batuk dies. I knew it within the first 20 pages that it would not end well, and at the end of The Blue Notebook, there is blatant foreshadowing, and you know by then, if you didn’t already, that she was going to die a cruel and violent death. So did she, sadly, and she was powerless to act on that prescience, because after six years of conditioning, it never occurred to her to run.
I understand what Levine was trying to do with The Blue Notebook, and I think it commendable, and according to the back of the book, all the profits from the book is being donated to organizations that help missing and exploited children, so the fact that Levine didn’t write this book for the money touches my heart. This fact also makes me feel bad to give a frank and honest review, but the truth is, the second half of the book feels like a gorean child molesters erotica book. Batuk is raped repeatedly, and basically answers, “Thank you, Master, for the pleasure.” She’s kicked and beaten and starved, and all that is horrible and fits into where Levine wanted to go with the story, but the way in which it was written felt like a male fantasy.
IDK, I’m not saying he enjoyed writing it, just that it felt creepy, like when you were a kid, the uncle at the family picnic that hugged you a little too long. He didn’t do anything wrong, per se, he just hugged you, but it leaves you feeling like you’re crawling with cooties and need a scalding hot shower. Yeah, the second half of this book is like the creepy uncle.
I’d say that if you’re inspired to buy this book because doing so helps out children, just donate directly to the International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children. Don’t bother with the book, just donate the $10 straight to the cause.
For all that he wanted to do with this, and for the beautiful sections that the book does contain, I’m going to give The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine 2.5 out of 5 stars. That represents a balance of what I loved and what I hated, I think.
Other links of interest:
The Street of Cages: In Mumbai the Sparrows — children of prostitutes — are being rescued and given an education, thanks to a remarkable project – A Times Online article also by James A. Levine
Lisa at Books On the Brain
Petunia at Educating Petunia
Nicole at Linus’s Blanket
Natasha at Maw Books
Jen at Devourer of Books
Rants and Reads at The Novel World
Rebecca at The Book Lady Blog
Swapna at S.Krishna’s Books (is there a book she hasn’t read?)
Meghan at Medieval Bookworm
Jennifer at The Literate Housewife
Jill at Rhapsody in Books
Laurie at In Laurie’s Mind
At this point, I’m just gonna stop adding links because, apparently, I’m the only person left in the blogosphere to read and review this book. If you’d like to add you review to the list, link it in your comment 🙂
Filed under: ARC Challenge, Book Reviews, New Author Challenge 2010, POC Reading Challenge | Tagged: Batuk, Blue Notebook, child prostitution, diary, fiction, India, International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children, journal, Mumbai, sex slave, street children, Street of Cages |