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3.9 out of 5 stars
Witness the Night (Simran Singh 1)
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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 21 April 2010
Having received my copy of "Witness the Night" yesterday, I finished it this afternoon. I don't normally read fiction but it was so compelling I couldn't put it down and finished it within 24 hours. It is a gripping thriller/mystery drama but haunting and disturbing - all the characters clamour in my head as I write this, having just read the last line. Deeply affecting.

Harrowing issues are explored in depth as the author emphasises the fact that these (female foeticide, infanticide, sex selective abortion etc) are still contemporary issues to be dealt with, not legends of the past. I guess fiction gives lease for honesty.

A must read for anyone who enjoys detective fiction - or anyone with an interest in women's rights.

Anjali Guptara, Presenter
"India's Forgotten Women" documentary
Pipe Village Trust []
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 17 January 2011
This is a compelling book that revolves around the mystery of a brutal mass murder of 13 members of family, and a social worker trying to unearth family secrets that many, even outside the family, have a stake in ensuring do not come to light. It is also a social comment on the plight of girls in traditional Punjabi families even in the modern age. The issue of police corruption also rears its ugly head as the intrepid social worker Simran tries to unravel the mystery and reach out to Durga - one of the few in the family to survive the massacre yet is treated by the police and others as a suspect. Simran strongly believes she is a victim rather than a criminal and is determined to prove it.

This book has some flaws - it moves slowly to begin with, although this is tempered by a fascinating portrayal of a patriarchal society in which girls have little worth. Everything is resolved a little too fast for my taste, in the last 10-15 pages. I also feel that while we are taken on a compelling journey into the terrible lives of Durga and her sister, at the end we do not really know or understand them. Desai is an excellent writer, but it takes a truly extraordinary writer to draw us inside the heads of these victims. And she just falls short of this.

So much is related to us through the words of outsiders that I was not convinced by the ending - can Durga and her sister ever be healed? Nor was the mass murder convincingly explained.

However these flaws should not detract from a powerful novel, expertly told. The author promises more books featuring the independent-minded social worker Simran. I will definately be watching out for them.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 10 February 2011
Kishwar Desai won the costa book award for this novel, and upon reading the blurb I decided to give the book a go. I have always been aware of the divide in Indian culture of male and female, but this book quite disturbingly brings this out from under the carpet, and throws it at the reader in an articulate, but alarming rate. It is disturbing and harrowing that this kind of attitude and behaviour is allowed to be continued in the 21st century, the fact that men can be allowed to instigate such violent, nasty atrocities to the very people that created them in the first place. As for the book, it is well written, fast paced and reads as a kind of thriller which makes you read the book very quickly, I loved the female protagonist, yet even she, who is seen as independent and happy without a man is working for free and is living off her fathers money,still, she is an air of light in what is essentially a truly disturbing read. Great book, hope the writer will listen to her publisher and write a few more stories with Simran in them
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Simran Singh is a forty five year old unmarried social worker. She is the despair of her mother, who constantly bemoans her lack of grandchildren and the career she does not need, having inherited enough from her father to live independently. Now, Simran has returned to her former home town of Jullundur, called by an old friend who is now Inspector General in the Punjab, to assess Durga, a fourteen year old girl. Durga was found raped, tied up and covered in blood in her family home, where all thirteen members of her extended family had been murdered. The only relative who escaped was her sister in law, Binny, who had returned to the UK to give birth to her daughter. Durga is the chief suspect for the murders, in a country where cases do not come to court for many years. As Simran investigates, she discovers a web of intrigue, family secrets, abuse and female infanticide.

This is, overall, a fantastic read. I loved Simran and the characters were all will written. Many of the places and people Durga knows are also known by Simran, who has to confront her own past as she re-visits her old school and friends. The horror she unearths is shocking and the casual disregard of women is something which cannot, and should not, be ignored. I did feel the ending of the book was slightly confusing and the murders not entirely explained. However, even with these flaws, the book was simply unputdownable. Highly recommended and I really hope that Simran appears in other novels as I feel she has much more to say.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2011
Having read the above reviews, and knowing that Desai won the Costa first novel award, I was looking forward to reading this book. The story is compelling and I think it's an important story that needs to be told, however the language and structure of the book are poor. Desai uses similar tricks to Dan Brown in the Da Vinci code; maddening and obvious half finished chapters/ emails and telephone calls, with no apparent reason other than to entice the reader to read the next chapter. Simran, although a sympathetic and likable protagonist, also has a tendency to 'lecture' the reader with background information - whether it's about the mystery or the situation of women in India. Most of this could/should have been conveyed in a subtler way (hence why so many detectives have a sidekick). So it's a good quick read, and if you like Dan Brown you may well like this book, but from a literature point of view, this book doesn't offer much.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 July 2012
A new author to me, decided to purchase Witness the night whilst waiting for Devai's other title to become paperback price!
Having visited India several times and experienced some of the culture, I decided this book may be interesting. I wasn't disappointed. It was educational (and harrowing) as I learned a few more things about child infanticide and woman's stuggles to survive.
The author lets you know and understand certain aspects of Indian culture within the tale. The story is told through a woman social worker and gives the platform from which the main character's situation is told but also through thoughts and feelings of the 'victim' of the story, with first person narrative at the start of chapters which is engaging.
The plight of Indian woman,daughters and female fetus across social strata is highlighted in this book. Informative via a fictitious platform. Read this if you want an engaging read and more understanding of aspects of Indian culture and woman's plight particularly.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
When a family is horrifically murdered, the sole survivor becomes the chief suspect, even though she is a fourteen-year-old girl who had been found tied up at the scene and had herself clearly been assaulted and raped. Durga is now in prison and social worker Simran Singh is called in by her old friend Amarjit, the Inspector General in Punjab, to assess her mental health and decide whether she can be interrogated. But Simran finds it impossible to believe in Durga's guilt and so sets out to investigate the events that led up to the murders...

This powerful book won the Costa First Novel award in 2010. The murder story itself is hard-hitting, but the real purpose of the book is to take a much more in-depth look at the place of girls and women within Punjabi society, and it doesn't pull any punches. In a society where male children are treasured, female infanticide is shown as commonplace, while women who fail to produce male children are stigmatised and may be cast aside to face a life of poverty and disgrace. With the advancement of medicine, Desai shows how the ability to determine the gender of a foetus has led to the practice of aborting females, sometimes with the mother's willing consent, but sometimes forced. At the same time, these very practices mean there is a shortage of females of marriageable age, leading to arranged marriages with girls from Indian families elsewhere. The book also shows the continuing cultural after-effects of Empire and the links with the large Asian community in Britain, specifically Southall, an overwhelmingly Asian-populated suburb of London, where the elders still conform to old traditions while the younger generation are much more anglicised in their outlook.

Simran is independently wealthy, so has escaped the traditional need to marry and breed. She is a modern woman, who smokes and drinks and has boyfriends, all things considered quite shocking here in the town of Jullundur where she grew up, but which she left many years ago. Though she's now in her forties, Simran's mother still hasn't given up hope of marrying her off and getting some grandchildren, and this aspect of the story adds some much-needed humour to lighten the tone in places, while also allowing the author to contrast the more enlightened attitudes of some areas of India to those prevailing in Jullundur.

The story is mainly told by Simran in the first-person (past-tense, thankfully) intercut with sections from Durga's journal and e-mails between Simran and Durga's sister-in-law in Southall. The plot is a little too convoluted and sometimes messy - it seems as if Desai has wanted to cover so many issues that she has had to cram too much in for total plausibility. There is an occasional descent into preachiness but not badly enough to destroy the effectiveness of the story. The writing is good rather than excellent, and for my taste there were too many unexplained Indian words that left me floundering for a meaning from time to time. I also wondered if the society and culture could really be quite as bleak as Desai paints it, but perhaps it is.

None of these points, however, take away from the impact of the book. Unlike so many of the crime novels I've been disappointed by recently, this one shows what the genre can do when it's done well - cast some light on aspects of society that are normally hidden, and tell a strong and hard-hitting story without indulging in lengthy descriptions of gratuitous sex and misogynistic violence for the sole purpose of 'entertainment'. Desai has subsequently written a further two Simran books, and I will be keen to see how she develops the character and what subjects she tackles in those. Meantime, this one is highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 July 2013
This novel won the COSTA New Book Award in 2010 for debut novelist Kishwar Desai. There are so many first-class novelists and, in particular, female novelists from the Indian sub-continent that any new arrival faces some big challenges. The language and the characters, of course, and, if it is a novel set in the region, there is the need to ensure that the issues and perspectives are not mere repetitions of the work of earlier authors.

Here, the narrator is social worker Simran Singh, a warm, whisky-swilling, chain-smoking 45-year old, only unusual in that she is a woman. "Long ago, I veered away from becoming a lawyer. I chose the much more thorny but independent route of trying to help those who fall by the wayside. I know that sounds quite self-serving; but let me tell you, smugness is the greatest attribute of the social worker in India, especially those like me who prefer to work as freelancers, at the non-government end of things".

She certainly has to have her wits and determination about her when assigned to the case of a sensational number of murders, all in the Atwal family, in Julluldur, a small town in semi-rural, central India. The inside of a house is covered with the blood of its dead inhabitants, so the novel is also an homage to the classic British country-house murder. One person survives, 14-year old Durga, who is found only half-alive, raped, beaten and abused. She is arrested and held under investigation for thirteen murders. The book plays out the investigation and enables Simran to revisit the town where she went to school, meet friends from that time, to reassess them and consider her current opinions of them.

Simran has split up with her Last Boyfriend much to the disgust of her mother who devotes her life to seeing her married and the mother of a baby boy. The importance of the gender of a baby is a theme running through this book. This is a novel that talks frankly about gender equality and insists that women be seen, in law and practice, as equal to men. It is argued that too many in India still see female babies, girls and women as worthless, a drain on their family resources and better off dead.

As well as Simran's narrative, each chapter opens with Durga's recollections of her life and her treatment by her family and others, although I was not always totally convinced that this was the voice of a psychologically-, emotionally- and physically- damaged young girl. At the end of each chapter there is an exchange of e-mails between Simran and Binda, Durga's pregnant sister-in-law who lives in Southall, and who escaped the atrocity only by returning to the UK. Binda is a different Indian character, born and raised in England but who entered into an arranged marriage in the country to one of Durga's unpleasant brothers. Her e-mail, on the last page, caused alarm bells to go off and one wonders whether the story will be continued in some way.

The book is not entirely successful as a crime novel, but the wider context, the list of characters and the rage of the author, who used to be a print journalist, more than makes up for this. I have read that Desai's book has sold very well in India which is very interesting given the crime and its background in the low esteem of female babies, girls and women in that society. It is also interesting from the perspective of how the author describes Simran, a complex and very modern woman, and Durga and her familial- medical- and judicial treatment. The author is very good at shading the complex responses to the issues at the heart of the book and of explaining their social, economic and familial origins. At times, she is writing a polemic, but the topic is one that rightly deserves impassioned language, nothing less would be appropriate.

Simran, representing the author's opinions, exposes not only hypocrisy but systematic abuse and violence against babies and girls, carried out in the name of family honour and financial gain. She also meets head-on the issue of police corruption and inefficiency, and the power of men in high positions and how this is used with impunity. The resolution of the situation of Durga and her sister, Sharda, is disappointing but undoubtedly realistic, with `blackmail' being the only weapon to improve their circumstances but leaving the guilty parties unpunished. In the face of the powerful, people or organisations, few want to help unpack lies and deceit, as Simran finds out.

Desai's language throughout, whether describing visits to prisons, landscapes or trips to buy more alcohol, or reporting conversations from a broad range of characters is beautiful, except for her repeated references to the Director of a mental hospital as "my old friend Prakash Goel". By the time we have read this for the sixth or seventh time in just a few pages we are able to remember that they had met previously.

Desai has now completed two more novels featuring Simran and, much more importantly, she considers things are improving for women thanks to a renewed media focus on sexual violence. As this book shows, she is motivated to be party to this by raising the issues in as direct a manner as possible, and she is also glad to have found an effective way, through her books, to inform and encourage people, especially young people, to consider what has been happening and to add their voices to the cries for action and reform.

This is a grueling read, but a very compelling one and I recommend it unreservedly.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Set in current day India, this tells a harsh and harrowing story that needs to be widely read. However much we think we might know about gender inequalities, this personalises the politics and draws us deeply into the implications of a cultural prioritisation of boys and masculinity.

I agree with some of the criticisms here - that the 'mystery' element sometimes feels a bit lightweight, that some of the stylistic elements are a tad throwaway - yet I suspect the author decided to tell her story in this way in order to broaden her readership, and in that I feel she has succeeded.

In any case, I was happy to forgive some of the more obvious touches in view of the book's overall message. Desai does a good job of keeping her anger under control so that for all its brutalities, this doesn't turn into an ideological rant. So while not the most polished of books in literary terms, this is certainly hard-hitting emotionally and politically. Whatever its shortcomings, it's a book I'll certainly be recommending to all my friends.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 3 April 2012
I read this because it gained the Costa award and because I was drawn to the subject matter. The story is truly shocking, involving as it does, female infanticide and the systemic abuse of women in parts of India; it is a tale which deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. However, I found it not very well written and a disappointing read.

The characters are poorly drawn and lack depth. The `voice' of the protagonist, sounded inconsistent and unconvincing and this was rather off-putting as it made me focus on the way she said things rather than what was actually said.

I found the plot device clumsy and contrived; irritating unfinished emails and telephone calls which string you along to the next chapter, and ultimately to an unsatisfactory ending. I feel that this is such an important subject that it deserves better treatment than this.
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