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Measures of Disobedience

August 30, 2011

Cover for A DISOBEDIENT GIRLLast night I finished Ru Freeman’s novel A Disobedient Girl, which is composed of two interlocking narratives about Sri Lankan women trying to break loose from the stifling conventions of marriage and caste. This book has a lot to recommend it. To me, one striking feature is not the obvious similarity between the two female protagonists, both of whom are seeking freedom, but rather their difference.

In one story line, Biso, a devoted mother of three, leads her brood in a flight from their abusive father; she’s close to 100 percent good, without a nasty thought in her brain. Though she cheated on her husband, he deserved it. The other protagonist, Latha, a servant girl, whom we follow from childhood to her thirties, is not just “disobedient” as the title proclaims, but genuinely nasty at times; she has a penchant for disloyalty, revenge, sneakiness, and deceit.

With Latha, the author herself is being disobedient to the standard portrayal of a female heroine. True, Latha is no Emma Bovary; she’s more pleasant than Emma, smarter, more honest with herself. Still, we’re asked to admire a character who takes some malicious whacks at those around her—and we do. We like her spirit, and we sympathize with her bondage. Orphaned, she was taken as a young child into an upper-class home, where she was raised with another girl her own age, Thara. She and Thara become close friends, but the caste difference can never be shaken, and ultimately she takes the role of Thara’s servant. Their love/hate relationship forms the core of the novel.

We also admire Latha for her passionate dedication to Thara’s children, whom she treats as her own. Like Biso, she has mothering instincts that are fervent, tough, resilient. In this book, it’s only the spoiled high-caste twits who make bad mothers.

In contrast to the women, the adult males in both story lines tend to be distant and/or beastly, and I found that a bit disappointing. Both plots end melodramatically, too, with some twists that I found unlikely. But the sharp details of Sri Lankan family life more than make up for any distortions of realism in the plotting, as does the complex psychology of the bond between Latha and Thara.

Since I read this book in an electronic version on a Nook (the popular Barnes & Noble e-reader), I have to point out that many of the special characters in the Sri Lankan terms did not translate—they appeared as question marks. They may be fine in the epub file itself, but they don’t display on the Nook. The publisher, Atria, is a division of Simon & Schuster, and with that major house’s resources, the editors ought to be able to pay someone to check a book’s appearance on the most common e-readers. If an accented character doesn’t display properly, a workaround can be found—at the very least, the substitution of a standard keyboard letter.

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