Book Review : The Sea of Innocence
The Sea of Innocence by Kishwar Desai is her third work in the Simran Singh Series. The first one was Witness the Night which dealt with female infanticide while the second one Origins of Love focussed on surrogacy. The only thread linking all these three reads is the recurring protagonist – Simran Singh who is a social worker/ investigator making it suitable as a stand-alone read too.
The Sea of Innocence is a thought-provoking albeit a bit frustrating novel that juggles many difficult issues.
Starting with the dark corners of Goa, the author explores its fall from grace as a popular destination for both domestic and international tourists and its dark metamorphosis into a place scarred with problems related to increasing crime, drug mafia & the various shady link-ups to western tourists, people dying from drug overdoses and women being sexually assaulted. Sexual assault of women is another subject that takes center stage in this read. From the outset, Desai does not palter or spend pages on sundry descriptions, she isn’t one for subtlety. She jumps right into the core subject by providing a detailed account of sexual abuse, which is something that is very relevant as well as rampant in our society today. Desai frequently refers to the brutal gang rape in a public Delhi bus in December 2012 whilst reminiscing the Scarlett Keeling Case and draws parallels between both the stories and the case presented in this read. Also, this read is as much an examination of our so-called modern society as it is a murder mystery, as Desai presents the sleazy side that the Indian males adopt whilst dealing with western tourists of the opposite gender.
Coming to the plot, our protagonist – Simran Singh needs a break from her busy life as much as she needs to spend some quality time with her 16-year old adopted daughter – Durga. Thus, she flies to Goa on a vacation and looks forward to spending her days on the tranquil beaches. However, barely into her vacation & the myth is broken when Simran receives a disturbing video from her friend/ex-flame, Amarjit, who is also a police superintendent in Delhi. The video shows a British teenage girl being molested by a few local boys but she is too intoxicated to realise what is happening to her, leave alone resist it. Next, Amarjit shows up in Goa and informs Simran that the Brit girl in the video – Liza Kay has actually gone missing and is suspected to be dead. For reasons he does not disclose at the start, Amarjit does not want to involve the local authorities and needs someone subtle to carry out the investigation, Simran being the perfect candidate. Annoyingly, he keeps on persuading Simran to get on the case, since she is adamant not to ruin her holiday. But deep down, the video raises Simran’s curiosity and a certain level of empathy since her daughter too is around Liza’s age and she begins to investigate albeit a bit elusively. As she moves deeper into the investigation, Simran comes across an array of people masquerading around – from Liza’s unpredictable sister Marian, who appears as erratically as she vanishes to the local beachside vendors & their gang leader – Veerama who seems to know everything but is tight-lipped about it. Meanwhile as more tapes follow from an anonymous source, Simran has a hard time from distinguishing between whom to trust and who is acting under a veil.
Part of the charm of this read was the protagonist – Simran Singh, who is an unusual mix of gutsy & sensitivity and hence serves as a great basis for Desai’s reads.
And there is a reason why Simran is the perfect protagonist as Desai explores women-centric social issues in this series. Desai has developed her character in such a way that she comes across as unconventional for a 40-year old investigator yet doesn’t strike as weird or forced. A spinster, she has an unapologetic penchant for a good smoke, alcohol and courting risks alike. As a reader, I found her as someone with a tough-as-a-nail exterior yet she had this vulnerable side to her which made her go out of her way to unearth the truth. Also, along with the protagonist, the author has etched out the secondary characters in good and realistic order. Each and every character is given a distinct voice and motive, pinning them as a suspect in Liza’s disappearance.
Given the subject of sexual abuse, it is not an easy topic to talk about, leave alone write it but Desai does not shy away from portraying the horrors of the same – straight and square. With fresh cases of sexual abuse of women cropping up almost every day, Desai does a great job at voicing out the concerns regarding the injustice meted out to these women and the apprehension & sense of insecurity these incidents evoke in women, which does strike a chord. The plot kick-starts with a hard edged recital and immediately grabs the reader’s attention. The writing is at its crispy best for the first few pages. However, whatever potential it had to become a fast-paced thriller fizzles out when the author lapses into long social introspective modes in between the story. Due to this, the tautness of the plot is lost and the story becomes a bit of a drag at certain points. Had the author posed this examination of our society as questions & let the readers find the answers as the plot went along, the narrative would have been shorter, effective and hence more thought-provoking. Also, the author takes the reader to the edge of the seat with the entire whodunit investigation, only to wrap up abruptly in the end. The last few pages seemed very rushed and a few strings seemed to be left loose which clearly left me unsated.
Having said that, let me add that there is something terribly heart-breaking and poignant about this read that stays with you long after you turn its last pages. It has its own highs and lows but pick this up if you are looking for an engrossing read with an engaging protagonist and a mystery.
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