BELLE | BOOK REVIEW
I have not read many books that delve into the sordid and frankly, very disturbing world of human trafficking. Belle is one such book and it is one that I have mixed feelings about.
The book set in the 1900s London tells the story of Belle, a fifteen year old girl who is sold and forced into prostitution at her very young age. In the course of the book, we move from the filthy brothels of London to the glamour of Paris to New Orleans with Belle. The author Lesley Pearse does a great job in making us a part of the entire experience — especially the grim, dark and horrifying life young Belle goes through. I was in fact far too disturbed to go on reading, but I think that is the reaction the author was going for.
Belle is the daughter of a brothel owner in the streets of Seven Dials, London, but while she was brought up in such a place, she is blissfully unaware of what goes around in her home. She is raised by Mog, the housekeeper and more a mother to her than her birth mother, Annie. Fifteen and naive, Belle’s innocence is portrayed as endearing and lovable. She dreams of becoming a milliner when she grows up. But all that changes when she inadvertently becomes witness to the murder of a girl working in the brothel at the hands of a very dangerous criminal. Her mother, though misguided in her love, tries to protect her by hiding all evidence of Belle being present at the scene of the crime. All the effort is in vain when the criminal, only known as “the Falcon” snatches her off the streets and smuggles her out to Paris.
Her friend Jimmy and Mog and even Annie is scared of what will happen to Belle but seems helpless when faced with the prospect of rescuing her from the clutches of the Falcon. Mog is relentless though, and manages to convince Noah, a budding journalist who was enamoured with the dead girl to help investigate into the incident. By this time Belle has been transported to Paris where she is sold to one Madame Sondheim’s brothel. Belle is confused by the turn of events and is terrified as she gets raped repeatedly. Remember when I said I was so disturbed that I couldn’t read — this was one such instance. She gets sick because of the abuse and is transferred to the care of nurse. However her fate is in dire straits when she is bought by another brothel owner, this time in New Orleans.
As she is transported to New Orleans by her captor Etienne, she develops a friendship with him. While he is helpless to rescue her from the future that awaits her, he does advice her to be the best at what she does so that one day, she can escape and return home. She vows to do so and that is how Belle transforms from a naive girl to the most wanted courtesan in all of New Orleans.
The story is interesting and it is especially heartrending at places when Belle endures such horrible circumstances. While we have all heard of topics like human trafficking or prostitution, it is daunting to read such an in-depth depiction into the sordid mess that it is. As a girl myself, I fear for anyone who falls into that world. Pearse doesn’t pull any punches while writing about the grim reality. By the middle of the book, I was sick of reading about how young girls are tortured and how at the end of it they just lose the will to escape, eventually enduring everything that happens believing that they deserve it.
What I don’t agree with is how the author portrays Belle. As a character, she is just not believable as the story progresses. I can imagine how innocent a fifteen year old girl would be. I can even imagine her will to fight the odds and go back home. What I cannot imagine is Belle still being naive enough to fall into bad situations repeatedly. No one who has endured so much would be fool enough to willingly walk into unknown destinations with strange men, right? In fact, I have heard several psychologists remarking how closed up girls who suffer childhood abuse can become. Belle, meanwhile, is blindly trusting of any and everyone she meets!
And that is what infuriates me — Belle is at one time completely under the spell of comfortable living that being a courtesan gets her and eventually the fight drains out of her. Belle becomes a mistress to a much older man and begins to value herself by the attention he gives her, which isn’t all that much. The one thing she does right is working towards her dream of becoming a milliner even after all this while. Belle is alternatively shown to be determined and naive and I cannot believe that character at all. Meanwhile, her family back home is struggling to find leads and bring her back. They eventually connect with Etienne, who vows to help in nay way he can as he is overcome by remorse. Things begin to look up for Belle as everyone works to find her as soon as they can.
But will they succeed in their quest to find Belle? Will Belle herself find her way home? Or is she too enmeshed in that world to ever lead a normal life again? Will she reciprocate the love Jimmy has had all this while for her? Or does she fall in love with Etienne after all?
While Belle is a very compelling read, it is my belief that the topic could have been broached in a much better way. I don’t know how historically accurate some of the parts are, but even so, putting something like the forced prostitution in anything close to a positive light is something I find I cannot agree with.
But I will conclude by saying that we should read books like this. We need to talk about such issues more. Unknown to us, there are girls still going through this in parts of India. Statistics say that children make up 40% of prostitutes in India, and that there are almost 1.2 billion children involved in the trade. Often, they are just snatched right out of their homes and most are never found again. These are terrifying prospects indeed. My respect to the author for tackling such a topic.
Here is hoping that no child ever has to endure something like that in their life…