Each chapter begins with an italicised section in which Durga, the young girl who survived the family massacre but was apparently raped, gives some account of what happens. These are carefully written to preserve the mystery of what happened and whodunnit to the end. The rest of the story is told from the point of view of the amateur sleuth (who drinks heavily but has a heart of gold).
There are moments when the writing jars:
- The very first section is intended as the hook and is a detailed account of the massacre: "The thick bile of sadness oozing from their hearts has regurgitated into their throats and blocked their voices, their pale shadowy hair seems like seaweed, green and stringy, floating in the air. Yet, all around their collapsed bodies is the scarlet odour of fresh killing, the meat at their feet is newly shredded for the dogs, which are peculiar and never bark. They do not even nudge the meat." I thought this prose too purple.
- There are some clunky moments of dialogue: "Listen, before we go in, no matter what happens, let me just say I really like you and thanks a lot. I was angry with you earlier, said a lot of things, I know - but you were doing your job, just as I am doing mine now. This sounds like a foolishly heroic statement, so I hesitate to say it, but if we can save her somehow. ..."
- There are some errors. The word 'somersault' is not spelled "summersault". The "Indian Made Foreign Liquor" shop's name is presumably an oxymoron rather than an "anachronism". I loved the "rickshaw puller's skinny legs peddling [sic] away" although I suspected they should have been pedalling.
The author is at her best when bringing us into the world of the Punjab. It is a world of unbridled patriarchy in which illegal abortion and infanticide is practised for girl children. It is a corrupt world in which the rich people can bribe the police to turn a blind eye. It is a world where poor girls can be bought to be sex slaves for rich boys. The author manages some nice moments of local colour:
- "We called all women older than us 'aunty' in Punjab. And all older men were called 'uncle'. Earlier we had more complex terms to describe relationships, but with the coming of the colonizers and the angrezi craze, much of the descriptive terminology, such as phoopi or taayi, had been junked." (p 167)
- The railway station "specialized in announcements made in Swahili which came on after the train had left." (p 116)
There are moments of insight:
- "In many cases it is difficult to distinguish the criminal from his circumstances, and then you understand that life can really be unfair." (p 9)
- "Surprising how even death - or a terrible disease like cancer - does little to mellow some people. They still carry their burden of destruction with them ... seeking to annihilate others before death snaps them in its jaws." (p 170)
- "If you live in a lake you don't antagonize the crocodiles."
- "It is said that if everything goes well, the wrath of the gods descends on you, so you have to put a black mark somewhere on your body to deflect misfortune." (p 40)
This is a debut novel which, despite some rather flat characters and the occasional poor writing, has some excellent moments, especially with the scene-setting. October 2018; 243 pages