May 31, 12
Read in August, 2009
I am a fan of coming-of-age tales (The Kite Runner) and family sagas (The House of the Spirits) as well as stories that are told with multiple voices (The Poisonwood Bible). I am especially fond of stories that take me to other places, places I've never been but have always been curious about (Memoirs of a Geisha, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan). So when I came upon "A Disobedient Girl" through the Vine program, I found a story that really fit the bill.
Author and political journalist Ru Freeman tells two stories at once in her debut novel, one of a girl named Latha who is a servant in a prosperous Colombo home and the other of a woman named Biso who is running away from a sullied reputation as well as an abusive alcoholic husband. Though Latha outwardly adheres to the Sri Lankan caste system, she rebels in small ways by pilfering luxurious soap from the Vithanage's lavatory and developing a sisterly bond with Thara, the daughter of the household who is of the same age. A little too willful for her own good, Latha's rebellion ends up getting her into trouble early on; when she is denied her wages to buy a new pair of sandals, she exacts revenge on the surly mistress of the house through Thara's girlhood crush Ajith and winds up pregnant at 16. Sent to a convent to have the baby, she returns to Colombo for Thara's wedding and is shocked to learn that not only is she marrying their other childhood friend Gehan (a boy for whom Latha had affection) but has also been commissioned by Thara to be a servant in her new home, an ironic and cruel penance for her past sins. Between Latha's tribulations is Biso's great escape from a miserable life, she and her three young children stealing away in the early morning hours from the seaside town of Matara to her aunt's house in Ohiya, a journey they take by train. Biso encounters setbacks, prejudice, tragedy and terrorism along the way and reminisces on her brief but bold affair with a man named Siri, a rebel rouser who fathered her youngest child. Though the journey is long and their resources limited, Biso keeps a brave face for her children, knowing all too well that though the gods seem to be smiling on them at every turn, their good fortune will only last so long.
Freeman alternates viewpoints chapter by chapter, Biso's tale told in first-person and spanning only a few days, Latha's in third and spanning several years (an interesting juxtaposition of narratives). The novel is so saturated in Sri Lankan culture and Sinhalese terminology (phonetically spelled, making it impossible to translate for someone who does not know how to speak or write Sinhala) that it can often distract from the story and becomes a detriment to its readability. She uses one too many Sinhalese words in her character's dialogue, leaving a reader wondering what someone has said (Have they used an expletive? An endearment? A proper noun to denote class? No one knows half the time). She also frequently mentions obscure brand names (Baygon, Panatol, Disprin, etc.) and forget about interpreting any slang - it's a lost cause.
It appears Freeman was a little ignorant in estimating the worldliness of her readership, unmindful that the majority of people who pick this up will more than likely NOT be of South Asian descent and/or origin and won't know much about it as a result. Or perhaps she thought she was educating her readers, only to end up confusing them instead. This is where the editor and/or publisher should've made some smart cuts and amendments to help simplify, clarify and balance the book's contents before it hit the shelves (it did so only two weeks ago). Though these details may encourage some (such as myself) to scour the internet and other resources to find out more about Sri Lankan culture, it may vex others beyond repair and nearly 400 pages of it is a lot to digest.
Other than this most glaring of flaws, Freeman writes with a passion and intensity that propels the emotional viewpoint of her characters, seamlessly blending past with present. She deftly interlaces her characters' fates with small and subtle threads to weave a brilliant tapestry of fate, perseverance, love, betrayal, integrity, the bonds of family and sisterhood and the suffering that results from the choices we make.
Bottom line: Emotional, tragic and beautiful, "A Disobedient Girl" will open a reader's eyes to another world, another culture, another way of life, providing a sumptuous and heavyhearted tale amidst the exotic backdrop of a country isolated from its neighbors by the yawning depths of the Indian Ocean. If you're a fan of Khaled Hosseini's "A Thousand Splendid Suns", this one comes highly recommended.