The Sea of Innocence

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The Sea of Innocence, Kishwar Desai, book reviewWhen Simran Singh and her adopted daughter, Durga, go for a holiday in Goa, they’re not looking for any excitement. They just want to take things easy, soak up the sun, hang out on the beach and relax. But when Simran is sent a video of a young blonde girl dancing with some local men, followed by footage of the girl lying on a bed with the men, she’s instantly concerned about what might have happened to the girl. The clips have been sent to her by Amarjit, the policeman who’s her old ‘friend’ and occasional lover and he wants Simran’s help. Simran’s resistant – she’s on holiday, she wants to spend time with Durga, she’s not looking for a ‘case’ to investigate but Amarjit’s newly single, getting a divorce and might it be worth her while to help him out? Wouldn’t her mother be thrilled if Simran could get herself a man as well as a tan?

This is Kishwar Desai’s third Simran Singh novel – The Sea of Innocence.
The girl in the video is Liza Kay and there’s a great mystery surrounding her. Is she alive, is she dead, has she gone home to England or is she still in Goa, popping up here and there and causing quite a stir? Simran gets to know Liza’s sister, Marian, an unreliable girl who seems less concerned that she might be expected to be over Liza’s disappearance. Two mysterious men keep turning up and threatening people. There’s a politician who may be up to no good, and even the women on the beach who sell jewellery and do henna tattoos all seem to know much more about Liza than they’re willing to admit. When Amarjit warns Simran to stop her investigation and back off, she’s too stubborn to listen, sucked into the mystery, lured in by yet more video clips of the girl. Who is sending these films, why are they sending them to SImran, and what has really happened to Liza?

I first ‘met’ Simran Singh and Durga a few years ago in Kishwar Desai’s first novel “Witness the Night” in which Simran helped Durga when she’d been locked up and accused of murdering her entire family. Simran is an unlikely character for a super-sleuth. She’s a Punjabi social worker in her forties with no husband and a fiercely independent streak. She drinks, she smokes and she gets herself into tricky situations. Simran Singh is no Miss Marple but it’s her flaws and her mistakes that make her such a fascinating character. Her dogged determination to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Liza Kay repeatedly puts her into perilous situations. Did I know ‘whodunnit’? Not really because for most of the book we don’t even know if a crime has been committed. It’s more a ‘didtheydunnit’ than a whodunnit – if you’ll pardon the expression.

Kishwar Desai does an excellent job of moving the story along, building the tension and confusing the heck out of both Simran and us poor readers. Our heads are spinning trying to follow what’s going on. This is one of the things I liked about Simran in the first of Desai’s books – that she makes mistakes, that she’s not shockingly clever and insightful. She’s as confused as we are and when the big ‘reveal’ comes at the end, you can’t help but feel that she (and we) have just kind of stumbled upon the answers rather than figured them out ourselves.

I can’t stand a mystery where the outcome is too obvious, but equally I hate to get to the end of the book and discover that no matter how hard I was concentrating, I never had a hope in hell of working out what was happening because the author seems to have got lost themselves. The Sea of Innocence gets the balance right and when the plot all comes together in the last chapter, I was left thinking “Yes, that’s fine, I can see how that all worked out in the end”.

The Sea of Innocence paints a very dark picture of the beach paradise of Goa and I find this rather disturbing. Apparently Desai spends a lot of time in Goa, but I can’t imagine she will be getting any awards from the Goa tourist board for repositioning India’s favourite seaside destination as a place of drugs, exploitation, rape and murder. Yes, any such place has a dark underbelly but Goa’s probably no more dangerous than Blackpool and the vast majority of holidaymakers will be at risk of nothing worse than a bit of sunburn and a case of the trots. There is a big drug culture in Goa, a consequence of its status as a hippy hangout back in the early days of international travel, but most visitors will have no problems to avoid it if they want to (let’s be honest, for some it’s the main attraction) and I would hate anyone to read this book and decide NOT to go to Goa as a result. It would be like not going to Oxford because you’ve seen a few episodes of Inspector Morse and people kept getting killed.

The other thing I don’t like about this book is the way Desai tends to get rather preachy about rape and sexual abuse. These are important topics but a novel is a place to position your ideas and let the reader come to their own conclusions, not to lecture them on the topic. In her first book, Desai got stuck into the horrifying issues of female infanticide and the abuse of unwanted daughters and in that case, the story and the political messages meshed together very well. In The Sea of Innocence she invokes the stories of two real (but dead) women – Scarlett Keeling, the English girl murdered in Goa five years ago, and Jyoti, the young woman gang raped on a bus at the end of 2012 who later died in hospital. I felt very uncomfortable that the families of these real women were being dragged into a fictional story. In the case of Keeling, whose mother Fiona MacKeown campaigned for years to get justice for her daughter’s so-called ‘accidental death’, I couldn’t help feeling that mixing genuine human tragedy with fictional attacks was a little inappropriate. How would you feel if the death of someone you loved was used in the plot of a thriller? I was also disturbed by the level of details about what the attackers did to Jyoti, which I felt went beyond what had been described in the international media and left me feeling really quite sick. I’m sure there are good reasons why the media didn’t go into such horrifying details.

Whilst Desai dedicates her book to ‘Jyoti, Scarlett and the thousands of women who have been raped and murdered in India’ and whilst I am sure her intentions are honourable, I’m sure that the families of women who have died or gone missing in Goa will not sleep well after reading this book. The exploitation of young girls and their role in the drug trade are undoubtedly real issues, but if I had a daughter who’d gone missing and I read what Desai does to Liza in this book, especially how she’s exploited when she’s past caring, it would really scare the life out of me.

That said, I did order the second book in the Simran Singh series straight after finishing this book. So I’m mega-critical of the preachy stuff, but it didn’t detract TOO much from an otherwise very good read.

I love India but of course I recognise that it has its dark side. I have been to Goa – to the bit that others may consider quiet and boring – and there’s no reason why people who take even basic precautions should be at risk in this amazing place. If you read this, I hope you’ll enjoy the plot, get to know the characters and not let the dark side block out the sunshine.

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Sea of Innocence, The
by Kishwar Desai

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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