Of the debut novels by non-Asian men writing about Asia and Asian characters that I’ve read thus far this year, three stand out: Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, Brandon Jones’ All Woman and Springtime, and most recently this title by Virginia attorney Corban Addison. The one clear detail the trio share: none shy away from unrelenting violence.
In spite of the horror, Son is stupendous storytelling, while Woman‘s narrative arc never moves beyond maudlin debasement. Walk lands somewhere in the middle, its violent content balanced by a love-story gone awry. Two privileged teenage sisters, Ahalya and Sita Ghai, living in southern India’s Tamil Nadu, survive the devastating 2005 tsunami with little more than their lives. Entrusting an associate of their father’s to deliver them to the safety of their convent school, they instead end up trafficked to a Mumbai brothel.
On the other side of the world, DC lawyer Thomas Clarke is still reeling from the death of his baby daughter, and his subsequent desertion by his Indian-born wife. His high-power corporate law career takes a sharp downward turn, and he makes the drastic decision to take a temporary posting with an international anti-trafficking NGO – based in Mumbai, where his estranged wife has returned to her family. His new job takes him on a brothel raid that rescues Ahalya out of her horrifying situation, but not before Sita has been sold elsewhere. Thomas’ impossible promise to Ahalya to find Sita takes him to Paris, then back to the States on a wild chase involving an insidious drug, child, and sex trafficking international operation.
If you choose the audible route, while you might appreciate actress Soneela Nankani’s accurate pronunciation, her too-young voice devolves quickly into grating when performing the Thomas-focused narrative. Alas, Nankani’s reading probably won’t be the only reason to roll the eyeballs: as timely and critical as the topic of trafficking and sex slavery is, Addison’s novel stalls at just readable enough.
Almost 400 pages (or 15+ hours stuck in the ears) of too-much Thomas is quite the challenge. For a man trying to win back his wife, he certainly places himself in compromising positions. Perhaps to counter his infidelity, his high-minded hero morals are what drive him to fight sex-trafficking in Mumbai, and yet he lets his college buddy take him to a popular club filled with high-priced women, where the friend abandons Thomas to buy his expensive bedmate for the night – and yet Thomas says nothing. Really?
Excuse-filled ‘I’m only human’-protagonist aside, too many plot choices are plain unbelievable, even in the realm of fiction: on the drive home from a beach weekend, Thomas unsuccessfully (but conveniently for his story) chases a black SUV (of course) after a mother screams her young daughter has been kidnapped; as heinous as Ahalya’s experiences are in the brothel, they hardly resemble the real-life monstrosities trafficked young girls face; and, most implausible of all, (*spoiler alert*) in spite of the number of evil men Sita is shuttled through (and not that anyone would ever, ever hope otherwise), she remains unviolated throughout her incarcerations. Again, really?
As crucial as the eradication of trafficking is throughout the world, as literary investment perhaps the better choices lie in nonfiction: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s pivotal Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is a highly recommended first choice. Addison’s own website also offers numerous resources to “Learn More,” and “How to Help.” Whether or not you read Walk is a personal choice; fighting the evil portrayed within is a universal imperative.