Named after the fifteen lanes of Kamathipura, one of Mumbai’s red light districts, this heartrending story, narrated by two struggling teen girls from vastly different social circumstances, was inspired by the author’s social work in India. Noor is the daughter of a sex worker, and despite her mother’s efforts to keep her at school, the brothel owner wants to sell her. Grace is ostracized at her school and then cyberbullied. As a result, she volunteers at an NGO which helps the daughters of sex workers to stay out of prostitution, where she meets Noor.
Noor is the heart of the novel. Her compassion, resilience, love for her younger siblings, and clear-eyed acceptance of her life sing out, and the many secondary characters in the brothel, the streets and the school of the Kamathipura chapters are all vividly created.
Grace, on the other hand, is a well-written, but much more traditional YA character – the introverted girl whose best, and only, friend leaves, and who becomes the target of the mean girls. I found the characters in this section of the book to be much more caricatured. The only exception is VJ Patel, the son of a Bollywood star and a rising name in the film world himself, who befriends Grace and acts as something of a deus ex machina, using his charm, wealth, and influence to solve everyone’s problems.
The balance of the novel feels somewhat offkilter as, though Grace is clearly having a very hard time, even she appreciates it pales in comparison to the institutionalized terror of Noor’s existence. As the girls’ stories do not converge until nearly half way through the book, their time together, when their lives are reaching a crisis point, feels rushed and not as well thought through or credible as the buildup.
The content of the novel is clearly intended for older teens as it doesn’t pussyfoot around the horrific realities of a sex worker’s life, though the brutalities are reported rather than experienced, and Grace cuts herself and contemplates suicide. However the rather glib and convenient resolution feel mismatchedly middle grade.
Like The Bitter Side of Sweet, Fifteen Lanes does an excellent job of bringing the attention of Western teens to the horror of life for some kids in other countries. But I found it problematic that Grace and VJ are used to ‘save’ Noor, taking the agency from Noor, who has coped for so long, and the Indian NGO.
Though I have a few significant concerns with Fifteen Lanes, I think it is a worthwhile novel for readers interested in different facets of global social issues.