CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 25. . . .March 4, 2016
In S.J. Laidlaw’s Fifteen Lanes, two teenage girls narrate their stories. Noor, 14, and Grace, 15, both live in Mumbai, India, and are bound by overlords. In Noor’s case, her overlords are a sadistic madam and her son who run the brothel where Noor and her family reside; in Grace’s case, the sadistic group of students who seem to rule the International Baccalaureate school she attends. Along with their tormentors, both must deal with the cultural constraints of their societies, and the internal despairs and hopes of their self-imposed belief systems. But for all these similarities, they might as well be on different planets. Their lives are worlds apart, and the kind of life each was born into is unknown, and inconceivable, to the other. And their personalities are polar opposites.
Readers meet Noor when she’s age five and travel with her as she grows into a teenager. In a voice that rings with honesty, Noor takes readers into the poverty, clamor, filth, greed, degradation, unimaginable brutality, strong family ties, resolution, loyalty and wit that abound in the 15 lanes of her sex-trade neighbourhood. At the same time, her actions and dialogue convey the voracious appetite for life that makes her who she is.
Throughout Noor’s narrative, Laidlaw’s images are so powerful, the descriptions so real, that at times I felt like a voyeur and wanted to turn my head away, but could not. I feared for this girl, and cheered for her, and prayed. She is at once a victim of her circumstance and a heroine within it.
Like Noor, Grace has a family that has strong ties. And though she inhabits a privileged world, there are those in it who believe themselves to be above the rest of humanity (and the law) and feel free to do what they will to those who are unwilling, or unable, to protect themselves. But that’s really where the similarity between Grace’s and Noor’s lives ends.
Until now, Grace has lived in the kind of physical comfort and safety her parents’ status and money, and a protective, very popular brother, could give her. But when her brother goes away to university at the same time her only friend moves away, her life changes.
Unprotected at school and alone except for her parents–who love but don’t understand her—she’s a piece of unripened fruit waiting to be plucked, peeled, bitten and thrown into a dung heap by her most vicious schoolmates. Too hungry for acceptance and friendship, she easily falls victim to a cruel plot. And though she acknowledges that the predicament she finds herself in as a result is largely due to her own poor decisions, she has no idea how to deal with it and no sense of the power within herself. So, she turns her strongest weapons against herself.
The author is unquestionably both highly familiar with, and empathic to, Noor’s world. However, in spite of the real stories like Grace’s that have been in the news, and the fact horrific consequences of sexual exploitation in her realm are likewise real, reading her narrative felt somewhat like watching a replay of a TV teenage soap. I had to consciously work to suspend my disbelief.
Though the girls’ stories are juxtaposed and meant to dovetail into one another, in the first several chapters of the book, I found it difficult to connect the kind of pressure Grace is subjected to with Noor’s situation, and the mess Grace finds herself in seems far less ominous than the ever-present threats that hover just above Noor’s head.
Overall, both the setting and the interplay between Grace and her tormentors lack the details and depth—the authenticity—of Noor’s story. That said, when the girls’ lives intersect, Grace begins to come alive, and I was drawn in.
Whatever my lack of involvement in Grace’s story in the first half of Fifteen Lanes, this is a powerful book. Besides the overt and internal consequences of sex-slavery and exploitation, several other themes such as family, popularity, perseverance, ignorance, sexual orientation, compassion and grit rise to the fore, and readers will come away with a great deal to think about.
At the very least, discussion of Fifteen Lanes in classes will lead to a greater awareness among teens that many in the world are suffering in ways they cannot begin to imagine; of the harm malicious acts can cause; and, in spite of those realities, some people who suffer from the vicious acts of others fiercely hold onto hope and find ways to make their dreams come true.
Jocelyn M. Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC. www.jocelynmreekie.com
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.