She loved fine things and she had no doubt that she deserved them.Since her days in the orphanage, Latha has been a companion and servant to Thara, a more fortunate girl her own age. But since her trip to the hill-country when she caught her first glimpse of a rose, Latha has known she was destined for a better life. For now, she must watch silently as Thara receives all the luxuries Latha is denied, consoled only by the rose-scented soap stolen from the bathroom of her master's house.Years and miles away, Biso, a desperate young mother, flees from her murderous husband, taking her children with her to the remote hills. As Biso and Latha journey towards their separate fates, struggling to hold on to their
independence, each will betray the people they love, changing the course of their lives for ever. A Disobedient Girl is an epic, heartbreaking novel about the linked destinies of two women, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent Sri Lanka.
Of the many profound truths that pepper A Disobedient Girl, perhaps the most contextually illuminating is attributed to a minor character somewhere in the middle of the book. “People leave home for many reasons, Duwa (daughter),” an old lady says. “They leave because they love the wrong people, or they leave because the right people don’t love them.
Love in its many forms and interpretations—benevolent and malignant, sororal and maternal, instinctive and presumed—is the motif of Sri Lankan-origin writer Ru Freeman’s first book, without doubt one of the most compelling novels you’ll read this year. A Disobedient Girl is such an accomplished work that it is hard to believe it’s a first novel: At the same time, its wisdom and temperance say much for a delayed debut.
“She loved fine things and she had no doubt she deserved them."
This is the opening sentence of the novel, and one which made me smile. A good, provocative opening sentence to reel the reader right in. This sentence alone encapsulates the protagonist’s personality and priorities, which is to shape her motivations, actions, and subsequent situations. Given a society like the Sri Lankan one with its rigid and hierarchical class structures and gender dos-and-don’ts, combined with the telling title, it was clear from the outset that our protagonist was going to break some rules, get into some trouble, and defy some societal norms.
The structure of the novel becomes apparent very quickly – 2 lines of narrative, each centred on one central female character, with the alternating chapters each headed by the name of the character (Latha and Biso) whose storyline the chapter unfolds. From the outset, the structure of the novel is slightly confusing in terms of its time frame, which is left unclear as to whether these 2 narratives are running in temporal parallel or not, while they are running in a literary parallel. The reader is also left wondering if the two narratives have a common starting point in time. At the end of the novel, it becomes clear the author needed to leave the time frames unspecified as part of her literary device in order to save an impact for the ending, but it is rather problematic for a reader who is left wondering throughout the first 350 pages or so about where to place and understand each of the 2 threads of narrative: in the present, past, recent past, far past…?
Ru Freeman’s remarkable debut novel, set in Sri Lanka and told in the context of civil unrest, unfolds like a hard candy being unwrapped in the theater, twist by crinkling twist, until finally, after suspenseful moments, the sweet interior is finally free. Here, the two ends of the wrapping seem unrelated: the story of Latha, a headstrong servant girl raised with a more privileged “sister,” Thara; and that of Biso, a woman fleeing her abusive husband with her three children in tow. The women are products of a culture that gives both class and men the power to decide their destinies, and yet they rebel against it, often under the cover of deceit, with the hope that their secret choices will finally make them happy. Told in alternating chapters — one from the point-of-view of Latha and the other in the first-person narration of Biso – A Disobedient Girl unfolds piece-by-piece, guided by the thematic forces of karma and destiny, despite the best efforts of its characters.
Freeman’s debut though not outrightly brandishing a brand of feminism is innately resplendent with a truly free feminine voice that provides insights into the lives of two women — two mothers in Sri Lanka. The style of writing is both intuitive and feminine, intensifying the predicament that both Latha and Biso, who embody motherhood, find themselves in. A sense of longing, optimism and adventure are all implied efficiently by the said use of intuition as the author crafts a world where these two women subvert the norms by embracing customised solutions. Not to mention, their giant leaps of faith dramatised solely by the use of this power of intuition.
The inflections of deliberations that the protagonists engage in are inherently feminine in their emotional quotient and are played up optimally by the use of a feminine style of writing. Use of words like ‘kindness’, ‘respect’ and ‘understand’ reverberate with a definite female timbre. The angst of a mother-to-be, the protectiveness of a mother, the possessiveness of a young mother who has lost her children to social norms are all contained effortlessly by nuances of language.