‘Witness the Night’ by Kishwar Desai

Witness-the-night

Fiction – Kindle edition; Beautiful Books; 352 pages; 2010.

Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night recently won the 2010 Costa First Novel Award. I was intrigued by the novel’s exploration of the hidden world of female infanticide in India, so downloaded it to my Kindle shortly after the announcement was made.

The story opens with the diary entry of a 14-year-old girl that feels like a candid, if somewhat confused, confession to a crime in which she was involved. The details of the crime are hazy, but it appears that the girl might have staged her own rape in order to make it look like “someone had tried to hurt me”.

The narrative then shifts to the social worker, Simran Singh, who has been assigned the case. It turns out that the girl, Durga, is now in a remand home, charged with the murder of 13 members of her family in one night. All of the victims had been poisoned, some had been stabbed and others burnt.

Despite the lack of fingerprints and no evidence to suggest an outsider was involved, Singh is convinced there is more to the story than meets the eye. She wonders if a man was involved or whether Durga acted in self-defence. She feels that the only reason the case has attracted a blaze of publicity is because of the large inheritance involved.

What follows is Singh’s painstaking investigation in which she immerses herself in the convoluted Indian legal and judicial system in an attempt to unearth the truth. What she finds out along the way is often eye-opening. But it’s not until she is forced to confront an entire culture intent on eliminating unwanted females, often before they are born, that Singh begins to understand Durga’s dilemma.

Singh’s narrative is bookmarked at the beginning and end of each chapter with two others: Durga’s diary entries, which provide an insight into her thought processes and painful family history, and  Durga’s London-based sister-in-law, Binny, who corresponds with Singh via email, offering further clues to Durga’s complicated background.

While the story is easy to read and Singh is an intriguing, well-drawn and unconventional character — 45 years old, single and still trying to escape her mother’s emotional blackmail regarding the need to settle down and produce children — the structure of the book doesn’t quite work.

Binny’s emails might give the story a contemporary feel and offer some clues to Durga’s plight, but they come across as forced and interrupt the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. By comparison, Durga’s diary entries lack authenticity on the basis they just seem too well written for a traumatised teenager to have compiled. (They also offer way too many obvious clues as to what happened on the night of the murders.)

In her “Author’s Note” Desai claims that while the characters in her book are fictional, the events are true. I suspect she is referring to infanticide as “events” or perhaps it’s the actual crime? She doesn’t specify. She adds: “There is a complicity of corruption between the police, the judicial system, politicians, media and the uncivil society […] gender issues are still treated with contempt.”

If that is truly the case, then hopefully Desai’s novel may bring this problem to the attention of a wider audience. But despite the worthy aims of Witness the Night, I’m not sure that the story comes up with quite the same impact as, say, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (about the Rwandan genocide), which I read shortly before it.

That said, Witness the Night is a refreshing take on the psychological crime novel. If you can forgive the author’s tendency to editorialise (Desai tends to cram her normally effortless prose with chunky passages of facts and news-like observations), then this new series featuring Simran Singh is one that promises to be worth following.

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11 thoughts on “‘Witness the Night’ by Kishwar Desai

  1. I thought this book was rather good, though I agree with you about some of the confusions and clunkiness. I read it “randomly” over last summer when it was not known….and was pleasantly surprised in its confidence for a debut novel. I particularly liked the character of Simran Singh and her cheerful independence.

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  2. Hmmm interesting. This is currently sat at the top of my TBR pile and was going to be read last week (but then I had to spend it in hospital instead and forgot it) as its one I seen everywhere and yet heard very little about. I will have to pop back once I have given it a whirl but the structure does sound, erm, interesting.
    I also had no idea this is the start of a series!

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  3. This book sounds like a hybrid of novel and reportage, which doesn’t always make for a smooth reading experience. Still, no matter how it is presented, the topic alone makes me want to read the book.

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  4. Interesting you give it 3 stars as your review has made me want to pick it up. I like the sound of it, but I’m curious if I will agree with the execution of it. Think I will give it a go (not sure when though).

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  5. Hi Boof! A three-star review in my system means it’s “a good read”, so despite the slight failings in structure, I still recommend this as worth adding to the collection. I’m sure you’d enjoy it.

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  6. I found the character of Simran Singh quite refreshing… nice to have a “crime novel” where the investigator is a social worker instead of a cop or a journalist!

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  7. I don’t think the author set out to write a series, but obviously she saw the potential after this book was finished and has hinted that Simran Singh may appear in future offerings…

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  8. The topic’s a good one, but I think when I read this book it suffered because of what I’d read before — A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, which was so deeply affecting (and shocking) about the Rwandan genocide. That said, Desai makes a good fist of it, but I never found myself feeling as outraged as I felt I should have been, and I think that’s because the hard-hitting stuff felt shoe-horned in, as if she’d researched it on wikipedia and needed to get it into the storyline somehow. That’s probably an overly harsh assessment, but it’s how I felt as I read it…

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  9. “My book Witness the Night deals with many issues but of course, the main one is to treat men and women equally, to respect the rights of women, and to bring up girl children with love and care,” Desai said in an interview…
    You can see our review and author’s interview here:
    http://www.curiousbookfans.co.uk/2010/fiction-books/2999/witness-the-night-kishwar-desai
    http://www.curiousbookfans.co.uk/2010/creative/3132/lady-kishwar-desai-talks-to-curious-book-fans

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  10. I just read this book and am still shocked by the crime itself..being from India myself I cant beleive this is still happening there. But sorry if am asking a silly question..but can anyone say who actually killed the family then? it was Durga and the tutor who egged her on? and who stabbed them all? its not made clear or maybe i missed it, I liked Simran but thought a lot of her characterisation very repeititive.

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