Writing an “issue book” for young adults can be dangerous. Writing an issue book that incorporates diversity and a non-Western setting can be disastrous. It can be shallow. It can be whitewashed. It can be a pity-party. It can be subtly racist. Issue books are hard to write because we all have unwitting biases, and they can reveal themselves in our writing, despite our very best intentions.
Fifteen Lanes by S.J. Laidlaw is nothing like that.
Besides being teenage girls in Mumbai, Noor and Grace seemingly have nothing in common. Noor (which by the way is one of my favorite names!) is the eldest child of a prostitute. She was raised in the red-light district of Kamathipura. Education is her refuge, but she lives in constant fear of following the fate of her mother.
Grace is an American expat in Mumbai’s international school. Her life is sheltered, but she struggles to make friends and arguably has some mental health issues. She makes a silly, irresponsible mistake that threatens to change the way she experiences the world.
And somewhere in the middle of the book, their stories meet.
Here’s what I love about Fifteen Lanes: Grace and Noor aren’t pitted against each other. At no point are Grace’s issues made to seem petty compared to Noor’s. At no point is Grace made out to be a savior; and at no point is Noor the girl who “gives Grace perspective.” Because there is nothing as annoying as someone who says, “Wow, look at her struggles, I’m so lucky to have my life” – and then they carry on with their privileged life, thinking that a day spent playing pat-a-cake with some impoverished children absolves them.
I sound bitter. If there’s one thing Fifteen Lanes is not, it’s bitter. It has been a long time since I have read a book so full of hope. The events are terrible, but the hope of a life beyond shame and caste is tangible, and relevant. I love the emphasis on education, and I love how romance really does not feature. This is a book about friendship and family, not about romantic love.
Other things that feature briefly are LGBTQI, and HIV. Although this story is Noor’s, acknowledgment is made of male sex trafficking, too. Laidlaw has a gift for incorporating these themes such that they form part of the thread of the story. They don’t feel like “quota” themes.
Part of the success of Fifteen Lanes is that Laidlaw has lived and worked in Kamathipura. She has worked with the children of sex workers. She’s not thumb-sucking, nor is she writing about something she has only Googled. Her experiences show through her work.
In addition to being a well-rounded, diverse novel, the writing is also beautiful; so really: this is an all-round success.
It has been a long time since I felt so connected to characters in a Young Adult novel, and I highly recommend it!
Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book from Tundra Books / Random House of Canada Limited in exchange for an honest review.
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You might also enjoy these books:
- The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman, another YA contemporary where two girls from different worlds become friends. (Set in Sudan.)
- Half the Sky by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, non-fiction about the economic strength of quality education and opportunities for women and girls.