If Ace Varkey’s first novel, “The Girl Who Went Missing” were to be made into a movie, it would be in the Film Noir style. It is both absorbing and disturbing and paints a picture of India from the point of view of a tourist as well as a picture of the covert, dark side of developing countries like India.
Set in the largest city in India, Mumbai, the story revolves around 2 sisters: Thalia, who is living in India and June, who is in India to visit her sister. When June is unable to locate Thalia and begins to suspect that she has been victimized in some way, she enlists the help of a police commissioner and a diplomat. Their search eventually takes them to parts of Mumbai that visitors rarely see, and exposes June to the ugliest parts of life in a poor country, including sex trafficking.
While the story is, indeed, gripping and the descriptions of India are often quite mesmerizing, the characters and situations in “The Girl Who Went Missing” lack nuance. There are very few shades of gray here, just “good guys” and “bad guys.” While it is, of course, tempting to villainize anyone who profits from sexually exploiting the vulnerable, Varkey does not delve into the deeper implications and meaning of India’s very real and very large human trafficking problem.
It should be noted that both June and Thalia are are American, upper-middle class, and white. Indeed, the story opens with a scene in which an Indian man is brutalizing a woman until “her eyelashes lay still against her white cheeks.” There are racial overtones and faint echoes of popular novels and movies of the early 20th century, like “The White Slave Hell,” which spawned an entire genre of White Slavery books and movies and led to the passage of The Mann Act, in 1910.
The Reality of Trafficking
The truth about sex trafficking is just as horrific as the fictional story in “The Girl Who Went Missing.” It is estimated that as many as 2.4 million people are the victims of human trafficking and that traffickers make $32 billion yearly from preying on the vulnerable. About 80% of all people trafficked worldwide are sexually exploited. Almost 25% of female victims of sex trafficking in India test positive for the HIV virus. You are most likely to be a victim of trafficking if you are poor, female and living in a developing country, a dictatorship and/or a region in conflict.
Perhaps the choice of heroines in this story was based on the theory that sensationalism sells more books. Varkey is clearly a very talented writer and it is difficult not to get pulled into the story right from the beginning. For those who prefer the black and white certainty of old fashioned tales of good and evil, “The Girl Who Went Missing” is a consuming story, very well told. For those interested in the very real issues around sexual exploitation or wishing for a more realistic portrayal of trafficking of girls and women, there are better choices than “The Girl Who Went Missing.”
More Information on Human Trafficking
Polaris Project (Trafficking in the U.S.)