James A. Levine's standout debut novel, The Blue Notebook, is a difficult kind of fiction. It's the kind of fiction that reveals a truth so painful you hope it remains within the book's pages. It's the kind of fiction that convinces you of a disturbing reality that exists beyond the story itself, even though you wish it didn't. This kind of fiction isn't the kind you can easily walk away from. But maybe that's exactly the effect Levine wants to have on his readers, and for good reason.
This book's author is an internationally renowned Mayo Clinic doctor, who toured the slums of Mumbai with a UN officer and a policeman. There, he witnessed first-hand the atrocities of child prostitution and saw one young girl-the inspiration for this story-writing in a notebook.
Batuk is a bright young girl from rural India who has been sold into sexual slavery at the age of nine by her own father. As she learns the way of her life in Mumbai, Batuk writes in a journal that she keeps stuffed in the mattress in her cage. The Blue Notebook tells the story of Batuk's life through the words she writes in her journal, so the voice of this story is-powerfully and hauntingly-her own.
By writing her thoughts and the story of her life, Batuk finds hope and records the beauty in her life even under the most harrowing of circumstances. When the story beings, Batuk is fifteen and has already been working on the "Common Street" in Mumbai for six years. Batuk manages to acquire a pencil that has fallen from the ear of Mamaki Briila, who takes on the role of a mother-figure despite being Batuk's keeper.
In The Blue Notebook, readers will come to understand Batuk's life within the Street of Cages and her personal history through the details she records in her journal. The fact that she can write and read at all may seem surprising, but Batuk explains the anomaly by telling about a time when she was sick as a child and sent to live in a hospital. Her caretakers nurse her back to health but also educate her in the process, sending her back into the world with these skills that she otherwise likely would not have.
Some readers may struggle under the emotional weight of this story, but it is a story that needs to be told until those like Batuk are no longer in a position to tell it. The narrative is so beautiful and sad and wonderfully written that readers may find themselves having a hard time putting it down, and a harder time forgetting it when they are through.
In the end, Levine's story in The Blue Notebook is not a redemptive one, and near it's conclusion, Batuk writes: "All that is left of me is ink." In a fictional sense, her statement is true, because it is this character's journal we're reading, but The Blue Notebook's author, James A. Levine, demonstrates tremendous courage and artistic talent in bringing her story alive.
Dr. Levine is donating all of the US proceeds from The Blue Notebook to the international and national centers for missing and exploited children.