Book Quote:

“She loved fine things and she had no doubt that she deserved them. That is why it had not felt like stealing when she’d helped herself to one of the oval cakes that were stacked in the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink in the main house. Who would care if one went missing from the seven sitting there, awaiting their turn in the rectangular ceramic soap dish bought at Lanka Tiles to match the new pale green bathroom towels? And, since she had been right and nobody had noticed, it was now a reliable source of luxury. When one wore out, which it didn’t for several months, she simply fetched herself another.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (JUL 21, 2009)

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.

Latha’s story, the first chapter of the novel, begins, “She loved fine things and she had no doubt that she deserved them,” and it foreshadows her undoing: Latha’s fight to have what Thara has, from new sandals to an advanced education to a husband of a certain class, undoes her, time after time. Because of her upbringing, startling beauty, and appreciation of “fine things,” the adult Latha is often mistaken for a “good girl” instead of as the servant she is. She inhabits both worlds without belonging to either. Instead of being appreciated for herself, she is defined by her relationship with Thara, a woman who acts as both sister and tyrant, depending on whim and circumstances. Latha gives, but rarely receives in return. The gifts she does get are often discarded by others. As a result, she must use cunning and subterfuge to get what she wants, leading to a life necessarily halved, one public and one private, one submissive and one rebellious.

Biso, on the other hand, willingly leaves her relative privilege despite the societal pressure to remain with her unloving and alcoholic husband. She would rather live an impoverished life than one without love. She entered into her arranged marriage because “this was what girls did: their father’s bidding [. . .] how could I say no?” But Biso, when she meets the insurgent Siri, finally falls in love and bears his child, her youngest daughter. This fleeting happiness is crushed when Biso’s husband discovers the infidelity and when Siri is killed. Her flight from the marriage is also a flight from all the pain she has borne over the years, to what she convinces herself will be a future free of men making decisions for her. If Latha is defined by Thara, then Biso is defined by her children. Biso also leads a double life, especially prior to fleeing her marriage: she acts like a dutiful wife and mother by day and associates with insurgents and her illicit lover by night. Even on the train and by foot, as she tries to get to the sanctuary of her family village, she must hide the truth of her trip or else risk scorn. Unlike Latha, however, who learns the lessons of inequity early, Biso’s disobedience comes late in life, and it is mixed with naiveté and trust.

While Latha’s story unfolds over decades, from pre-pubescence to her thirties, Biso’s story is much briefer in terms of time, a few days of her journey from city to the country of tea plantations. However, the time frame does not diminish the power of Biso’s drama; instead, it compresses both her misery and her hope into a poignant story of a mother fighting for the future of her children. The more panoramic scope of Latha’s story give a broader view of the culture and circumstances of orphaned girls and, more specifically, of how a Sri Lankan woman can find herself trapped despite her best attempts at freeing herself from cultural constraints. The two plots are compelling individually, but when their significance is revealed near the end, their combination is powerful.

Freeman writes well and beautifully, with imagery that lingers both emotionally and visually. When Biso desperately hopes that her “son has never been near those men who used to come grazing for little boys like him, their skin shining pink beneath the oils they rubbed on one another lying almost naked outside our hotels,” the decadence and dangers lurking close to children are strongly evoked, thus causing the reader also to fear for Biso’s son. And when Latha “lit a match to the sari and sat down on the edge of the bed to watch it curl and burn, slowly, like a long tale unfolding inexorably, meticulously, and without fuss, turning its beauty to ash,” the novel itself is reflected in this one image. The language is never overblown or unduly complicated but instead delivers the wallop of emotion through words put together well.

The only misstep in this otherwise accomplished novel is choice of present-tense narration in Biso’s story, a choice that seems designed to mislead. Freeman writes well enough to carry these two separate stories toward their inexorable ends without relying on a technique that, once the novel is finished, seems wrong. Readers may find themselves questioning this choice and feeling cheated by what the author implies from the beginning.

This heartfelt novel, both tragic and triumphant, deserves a wide readership. Its themes of rebellion, friendship, karma, loyalty, and loss lead the story to often surprising places, and the pleasures of those discoveries are many.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 11 readers
PUBLISHER: Atria (July 21, 2009)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
AMAZON PAGE: A Disobedient Girl
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Also set in Sri Lanka:

MOSQUITO by Roma Tearne

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THE GIRL FROM THE COAST by Pramoedya Ananta Toer


July 21, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Debut Novel, Literary, Reading Guide, Sri Lanka, World Lit

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