Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

The Women’s Prize shortlist announcement is now only two weeks away! I’ve read *almost* 11 of the 16 longlisted books so far and am on track to finish everything but Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light on time. I’ll keep trying, but it would take a miracle for me to finish 7 books (plus the last few pages of my current read) in fourteen days, especially given the size of the Mantel trilogy. But I digress- all this was to say that as I near the end, I have a surprisingly clear idea of which books I would be happy to see on the upcoming shortlist. The most recent read addition to this list is Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

djinnpatrolonthepurplelineIn the novel, 9 year-old Jai and two of his friends are disturbed by the news that one of their classmates has vanished. Jai is fascinated with an investigation show called Police Patrol and is eager to soothe his parents’ worries (thus freeing himself from the strict rules they’re laying down)- and so the three children set out to discover what has happened to the missing boy, in hopes of setting their community (an Indian slum) back to rights. As they struggle to find the pieces of the puzzle and fit them together in a realistic way, more children disappear and life in the basti becomes increasingly fraught.

“The headmaster won’t open the main gate fully because he thinks strangers will run into the school along with us. He likes to tell us that 180 children go missing across India every single day. He says Stranger is Danger, which is a line he has stolen from a Hindi film song. But if he were really worried about strangers, he wouldn’t keep sending the watchman away.”

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a mystery of sorts- the question of what has happened to these children keeps the novel moving, though this isn’t a book to pick up for its whodunnit clues and plot twists. (This is reinforced by the fact that Jai’s favorite theory is that evil djinns have spirited the children away, rather than a human criminal.) Instead, at the heart of the novel is the revelation of a greater metropolitan problem- missing children who go unfound and even unlooked for, mainly because of their poverty. Through a series of child narrators- primarily Jai, interspersed with brief chapters about each of the missing children- the reader is given an interesting blend of the worries and delights of youth, who notice the adults’ fears but can’t quite understand them.

“The good and bad thing about living in a basti is that news flies into your ears whether you want it to or not.”

The choice of utilizing a nine year-old as the story’s main narrator is both clever and somewhat frustrating- Jai’s investigations accomplish very little, and among his group of friends he seems to contribute the least to solving the case of their missing classmate; I wouldn’t rate him highly as a sleuth, and his scant role in the unraveling mystery is my greatest criticism of this book. On the other hand, he does have a particular vivacity that’s compelling amidst the book’s grim subject matter. He befriends a stray dog, compares himself to detectives he likes on TV, and makes an adventure of it when his detecting takes him to new places. His innocence buoys the novel’s pace and makes this a surprisingly addictive read despite the dark commentary packed between the lines.

Speaking of commentary, this seems to be Djinn Patrol‘s main focus- the narration digs into many challenges that city children can face in India: the need to care for themselves and sometimes even younger children, the difficulty of getting a quality education, the prospect of working (perhaps even multiple jobs at a time) before the legal employment age. Jai and his friends are often hungry, their families living together in one room, their few belongings used over and over until they are worn beyond repair. The book conveys the difference in expectations and opportunities for Indian boys and girls beginning even before their teen years, the tension of opposing religions leading to bullying and even violence that doesn’t exclude children, and the thick smog that cannot be escaped even when it is cause for canceling school. All this before the novel even touches on the things that can happen to snatched children.

The writing itself is solid, if simplistic- it’s elegance lies in things implied but not said, rather than poignant prose. This worked well for me because it fit the young narrator in a way a more ornate style wouldn’t have. There’s also a good mix of cultural vocab mixed into the story (there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book, though I didn’t realize it and managed to glean almost everything from context, always a plus). The sentences are quick and straightforward, the tone generally light, and the chapters flow easily from one to the next- a bingeable read. But don’t be mistaken- it’s sad as well. This is not a book that ties up neatly with happy endings for everyone involved, which is exactly how it makes such a powerful statement about the ongoing problem of missing children cases in India. There’s certainly a depth of tragedy here, which is essentially why Jai’s perspective works so well. Anappara mentions in her afterword speaking with real Indian children and wanting to capture their “resilience, cheerfulness, and swagger,” and “their determination to survive in a society that often willfully neglected them.” In this reader’s opinion, she delivers with aplomb.

“What is a whole life? If you die when you’re still a child, is your life whole or half or zero?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This one wasn’t quite as strong for me as a couple of other commentary novels disguised as mysteries that I’ve read this year, like Long Bright River or Disappearing Earth, but after a string of mediocre Women’s Prize reads I really did have a lot of fun reading this one and it stands out as one of the stronger longlisted titles I’ve read thus far. I feel like I’ve learned a bit about India, and I was entertained at the same time. I’m still working on a ranked list and my shortlist predictions, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see this one feature. πŸ™‚

 

The Literary Elephant

24 thoughts on “Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line”

  1. Yay! Great review, Emily. I have high hopes for this one, it sounds surprisingly good, despite my initial reservation towards MG. I’m quite curious about how the author writes social commentary into a MG mystery.

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    1. Thanks Naty!
      I actually don’t think this is a MG book, despite the age of the protagonist. There’s certainly no avoiding the fact that the narrator is 9 years old and acts like it, but young readers would find this a boring and/or difficult book, probably. It’s definitely aimed at an adult audience. I thought the childish perspective and adult themes worked very well together though; Jai observes and interacts with a lot of adults who have a better sense of the horrors of this situation so a lot of the commentary comes through in what he sees and hears even though he doesn’t understand it himself. I do hope you’ll like this one if you pick it up! πŸ™‚

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. When I first read it, I liked it a lot but I wouldn’t have said it would make my ideal shortlist. However, given my disappointment with most of the novels on the longlist, I’d say it now has a strong chance πŸ™‚

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    1. Thanks! I can see where you’re coming from, as I think the timing definitely helped my opinion here- in other circumstances this might have been a 3-star read, and the mystery element taking a backseat might have bothered me more. As it is, this was much more fun than any of the other longlisters I’ve read recently, so I’ll be rooting for it!

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      1. It was a weird one for me. I thought it was far too long and I almost got stuck in the middle, but the ending was so devastating it jumped from a 3-star to 4-star read.

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      2. The ending was so well-done! That will absolutely be what sticks with me from this novel. Any other outcome would’ve failed to land, I think.

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    1. Thanks! πŸ™‚ I did think the mystery element felt a bit flimsy, but luckily there was enough else going on that I found it a meaningful read anyway. I ended up quite liking the child narration! I hope you’ll have a good time with it as well when you get to it!

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  3. I kind of like that the main character isn’t the best sleuth in the gang. We read so many novels in which children are exceptional, and I wonder where mediocre children reside in fiction, because they certain exist in real life. I don’t say that to be mean, but more so to emphasize the pressure children are exposed to, chanting at them to succeed by being bright enough to get into a top-tier pre-school, for example.

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    1. I agree! I did like that these children all felt realistic, though in a perfect world I would’ve liked realistic children characters AND a compelling mystery element. It wasn’t so much that I wanted them to singlehandedly solve a case that was mystifying hundreds of adults, just that a completely fruitless investigation is not the most compelling reading element in a 300+ page book. But I didn’t end up bored, and I would’ve rather it went that way than try to deliver an unbelievable 9 year-old supersleuth! This is definitely not a community of top-tier pre-schools, though certainly some of those who will be reading the book will be in those communities and it is good not to imply to them that every child should be a genius. Fortunately, I think this is the sort of book that leaves the impression that we should be grateful for ANY educational opportunities, as those seem hard to come by and highly valued in the setting of this book!

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      1. I don’t know why I assumed that some mystery would get solved in this novel, but it makes sense that it doesn’t. There’s no way that millions of missing children can be a case that is resolved. Also, WHERE ARE THEY GOING?? I know that after the One-Child Policy was implemented, little girls were being kidnapped and kept as future brides for sons. I’m not wondering only where the Indian children are going, but why.

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      2. Yes, the question of where they’re going and why is partially addressed in the book, though ultimately since so many real cases also go without answers and/or investigation the truth isn’t fully known yet. The mystery of this book is “resolved” in the sense that most of the parents are given some small indication of what became of their children, though not every case is closed. Jai hears throughout the novel some adult worries about the missing children being sold into slavery, used for black market organ trade, or simply abused and killed by those who can get away with it, and I took these suggestions to be some of the likely possibilities for what happens to the children in the unsolved cases. It is very dark and disturbing, which is why Jai’s voice really was the right choice for the book, I think- because he can’t quite comprehend what it would be like for things like that to happen, and thus keeps the narrative from dwelling on them and becoming impossible to read.

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    1. Thank you! I completely agree. I was a bit worried the child narrator wouldn’t work well for me but ended up impressed with how well Anappara juggled the young voice with the deeper themes. Very well done!

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    1. Thank you! It’s been very helpful to have the WP as a project these days. I’d love to finish the Mantel trilogy “on time” if I can squeeze it in, but even if I don’t quite manage it by the shortlist announcement I’ll carry on with it for sure. πŸ™‚

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