YOU BENEATH YOUR SKIN by Damyanti Biswas
A Gripping Urban Contemporary Crime Novel
This book is flawless. You should read it to open your eyes. (But you probably shouldn't read it before bed. Okay, I shouldn't have read it before bed - you do you.)
It's more than a crime novel, though there is a "whodunnit" mystery to be solved. You Beneath Your Skin is also about relationships, families, secrets we keep and the impact they have, how we see ourselves, and a lesson in knowing people as they are instead of who we think they are or should be. This story gives a lot.
It also takes a lot. Strong trigger warning for the first-hand account of violence suffered by the main character. The monsters in this book are terrifying because all of the horrible events on these pages actually happen in real life all the time. There is violence against women, mentions of abuse, investigations of rape and murder, sex-trafficking type forced prostitution, drugs, corruption, and even a dead puppy. This is not a relaxing read. If you're looking to escape, this book will give you no pardon. And just when you think the author has dropped as many horrors as one book can take, she throws you another curveball. There are some happy scenes, there is some romance, there's even a happily-ever-after of sorts-- but make no mistake, this is not a happy book. I daresay even Stephen King would have nightmares. It is that well-written.
The book also has some excellent feminism (or equalism). For example, a character points out that she pays taxes (which fund public services, such as the police), yet she is supposed to stay home every night, something men are not cautioned to do.
This book was added to my TBR after I interviewed the author for the Operation Awesome blog's Debut Author Spotlight. We have followed each other's blogs for years. I knew she was an activist who makes a positive difference in this world. My review is unrelated to this. I bought a copy in April. I hope there will be more novels by Damyanti Biswas for me to read someday.
The protagonist and (eventually revealed) antagonist both hold a parent responsible for a negative impact on their lives. That's how good writing works, the related inner conflict of the opposing characters. And, like any good HEA, the protagonist forgives and overcomes, but the antagonist is anchored down by it. The antagonist believes if a parent has done something wrong, it's a free pass to do wrong as well.
I do not read many crime, true crime, or mystery books. I also do not read many books where there is another language slipped in every so often. (My e-reader failed most of the translations. A lot of it was poetry. There was nearly always enough context to get the idea of the meaning.) The language inclusion made it feel more real, more like India (a country with amazing diversity). By chapter 24, 42% into the book, I had figured out who planned the crime against the protagonist, but I was wrong about who executed it, and was slightly wrong about the motive. (This is why I don't read a lot of mystery books - I've deconstructed so many of them that I tend to figure out the antagonist before the halfway mark.) The end of chapter 28 made me think I was wrong about who the main antagonist was, but really I was more wrong about the exact motive.
Picking my favorite excerpts without spoilers is difficult. There's part of a line from early in the book, a setting description, that I really enjoyed. A character wishes to update a place, "more software, fewer files lost or chewed up by termites." It's so much more descriptive than just calling the place old and run down. I love it.
Chapter 45 has an incredible twist and profound words. I cannot share that excerpt because it's packed with spoilers, but it's amazing. The title of the book makes perfect sense by that point. "One splash of acid had changed so many lives." That line from the book is a tagline for the whole story.
This book is a tragedy, realistic fiction, is probably controversial to some people. There are plot twists. It's absolutely chilling, scary, haunting, thrilling, action-packed, and fast-paced. The author comes off as an authority on the subject who has done intense research. You Beneath Your Skin is diverse in that it's set in India with characters of various backgrounds (including partially white-American) religions and economic status, and also has a character on the Autism spectrum. There is a lot of compassion written into the scenes that detail a level of poverty most people cannot imagine. It is listed in the genres of Asian American Literature and Asian Literature.
I learned some Indian culture from this book (and Google). I had never heard of a police Sumo (it's a type of vehicle), and I have never seen a tea stand (and they say the number of Starbucks in the United States is too high?!?). I had never heard of someone biting on tissues, putting a tissue into the mouth. (That seems like it would stick and breakdown.) Before reading this book, I never thought about who pays the bill in India for the medical cost of an acid attack. (So odd that criminals are rarely required to incur the medical costs of their crimes.)
I also learned that "azaan" is the Muslim call for prayer, a word I hadn't learned before. The end of chapter 36 used the term "beda garak," which I'm guessing is the name of a skin condition, but I couldn't find anything on Google.
Something that blew my mind was a character recalling giving a drop of honey to a newborn. Honey can cause infantile botulism and botulism toxicity, so it's amazing to me that such a practice would and could still go on today.
|A rare line from the book that has a different meaning in an American dialect. "All but covered her eyes" would be sunglasses that are too small, "covered all but her eyes" would be the medical outfit worn in the scene.|
The book opens with an action scene. It draws you in with questions about that scene, and then anchors you with characters to care about before the predominant crime takes place. The third paragraph of chapter 53 had a wonderful example of a secondary character changing, becoming enlightened, and getting on the path to becoming a better person. Well-done. A lot of this book was hard for me to read because it was so powerful, so impactful, so real and so reminiscent of bad memories; yet it was worth it and I'm glad I read it.
Have you ever read a book that was difficult, emotionally, to get through?