Lauren's Reviews > A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman
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's review
May 27, 2009

really liked it
Read in May, 2009

This novel tells the story of Latha and Biso in alternating chapters. It begins with Latha as an unloved little girl, rationalizing her stealing of soap from her employers in order to maintain the hygeine habits of the rich. Latha works as a servant and desires the luxuries that her employers, the Vithanages, are accustomed to but deny the servants. Biso is a young mother in Matara, a fishing village in South Sri Lanka, who has decided to leave her alcoholic, abusive husband and flee to her family in the hills. The Biso chapters catalog her reasons for leaving her husband, her train journey, and the people she met along the way. Latha and Biso are not obviously connected for most of the novel (except for some characters that Latha knew and who met Biso while on the train), but each desire independence and self-determination. Latha, seeks to be independent from the dictates of class - particularly her role as a servant and the biases that come along with that status. Biso wants to be free from the husband she did not choose and live her life free from his abuse and lack of love. Latha and Biso are both impulsive and encounter significant mishaps along the way.

Latha's story takes place from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, moving at a fast pass, with years passing between chapters. Biso's story takes place over a four day period in the early 1980s during her trip from coastal Matara to the hills. The author does not disclose dates, but historical events serve as guides. My familiarity with Sri Lankan politics and history helped me settle some dates, but readers without that familiarity should be able to use mentions of Princess Diana as a rough guide of dates.

I found the shifts from Biso to Latha to be jarring. I was never confused about whose chapter it was, as they were clearly labeled. However, the structure lacked a certain symmetry that I am used to seeing when books shift narrator. The Biso chapters were written in the first person, whereas the Latha chapters were third person. Even though the Biso chapters historically antedated the Latha chapters, the Biso chapters are written in the present tense and the Latha chapters are in the past tense. Lastly, as I noted earlier, the pace of the Latha chapters is much faster, as they cover approximately two decades while the Biso chapters cover a short time period - in essense it felt like I was reading about every single hour in those four days, which felt tedious at times. I found this asymmetry to be troublesome, particularly in the beginning of the novel. This is the main reason I have rated the novel 4 stars rather than 5. Although I personally did not care for the approach, the author probably chose this course to conceal a plot twist at the end of the novel.

Overall, the novel is beautifully written albeit heavy handed at times. The novel has a wonderful sense of place, estabilishing the location quite well. The novel does a great job particularly with Latha, describing her frustration with being "invisible" due to her role of servant and her inability to have a regular life. Of course, part of that might be Latha's own making due to mistakes she makes that inhibit the likelihood of her finding a husband and family. Latha never seems to learn from her mistakes, which was frustrating for me. Nonetheless, Latha is a sympathetic character because, as her master-servant role evolves with her one-time playmate and current employer, Thara Vithanage, it is apparent that she is truly alone. The ending seems inevitable but I could not help rooting for Latha in the end to get it right and establish her own life.

Biso shared Latha's penchant towards bad decisions and morphed from a self-assured woman who seemed capable of making it on her own into a "train wreck." The end of the Biso story was predictable (I don't want to spoil the ending but it was foreshadowed numerous times and by the time I got to the second to last Biso chapter, there was only one way it would likely end) and disappointing.

Despite these shortcomings, the novel was good. It was a bit melodramatic, which is a common fault for South Asian fiction. However, the characters were interesting - especially Latha - and her characterization of the master-servant relationship in South Asia was spot on. [This is an especially good choice for readers who liked "The Space Between Us," by Thrity Umrigar.:]

** Reviewed for Amazon Vine.
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