Review: Fifteen Lanes by S.J. Laidlaw

Fifteen Lanes
by S.J. Laidlaw

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?

Award-winning author S.J. Laidlaw masterfully weaves together their stories in a way that resonates across class and culture.Fifteen Lanes boldly explores the ties that bind us to places and people, and shows us that the strongest of bonds can be forged when hope is all but lost.

(cover image and summary lifted from Goodreads)

Series: Standalone
Publisher: Tundra Books
Publication date:  April 5, 2016
Source/Format: eARC via Netgalley
Purchase links: Amazon | Chapters-Indigo | McNally Robinson  | Book Depository
My Rating: ★★★★☆

My Thoughts:
Fifteen Lanes provides an in-depth depiction of the plight of young women trapped into sex slavery in India. Noor does not know anything about living beyond Mumbai’s fifteen lanes of red district. She is descended from a long line of devadasi, who are traditionally courtesans (more or less India’s version of a geisha) but are now sold to the highest bidders to be used as sex workers. Her mother sends her to school but that alone seems not enough to allow Noor to escape the grasps of prostitution. Grace is a troubled rich kid who stumbles along Noor’s path. Seeing Noor’s life made Grace put her own in perspective but she doubts it if she could be of any help to Noor.

The book is told in alternating points of view of Noor and Grace. I have to admit, Noor took the brighter spotlight between the two. The timeline of Noor’s narrative encompasses years while Grace’s storyline happens only in a matter of months leading up to meeting Noor. And of course, Noor’s conflict is way far heavier than that of Grace although the book did an okay job at not discounting Grace’s issues. Both characters made me feel for them but like I said, Grace is the lesser fleshed out character and I feel like any other troubled girl can replace her in the story.

The book’s most charming part is in the exhaustive description of the book’s setting. I can almost feel that I am transported in the bustling city of Mumbai while reading. Particularly affecting is when we follow Noor as she grows up in the suffocating living quarters of her mom and later in the streets when she decided that it’s not safe to stay in the brothel anymore. There is an always looming sense of injustice due to social stratification and at the same time giving us the other sides of Indian culture like their language, belief systems like reincarnation, Bollywood, their cuisine. I know that the author is an NGO volunteer worker herself in India and it showed in her work that she knows what she is talking about.

Another thing I really liked is how the parent-child dynamics worked really well for the plot. There are these rather uncanny circumstances that the parents are shown to be really loving but still can’t do anything to help their children. Noor’s mom enrolled her in school in hopes that it will be her escape from prostitution even though other sex workers do not send their kids to school. Grace’s parents tried many times to talk to her about the problems she’s been dealing with even though Grace often pushes them away. These parents have their children’s best interest at heart. They were highly involved with their children. I think it’s excellent writing to make the parents work and try so hard but still come up short to make way for our YA heroines to deal with their conflicts themselves.

Some dialogues tend to be didactic at times, from Noor or like that one instance from Gajra, Noor’s bestfriend in school, preaching about equality. Don’t get me wrong, I like Gajra, bless her pure soul, but for me it just doesn’t sound right for her to spew big ideals like that at such a young age. I can see through her speech that there is an author writing those words and making her say them. Also, the plot got a bit convoluted near the end, including a murder that I think was unnecessary. These are minor things really that can be easily brushed off in exchange for a wonderful adventure story of a girl getting her grit on and fighting against fate to explore the possibilities of living outside the fifteen lanes of hell.
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