In May 2009, Sri Lanka’s government launched a bloody purge of the country’s resistance leaders, ending a brutal 30-year civil war that most Americans have never heard of. A Disobedient Girl, the debut novel from Sri Lankan political journalist Ru Freeman, seems like an opportunity to shed some light on the conflict in her native land.
But the novel spends far more time translating names and nicknames, and ensuring that readers know the Sinhala words for “sister” and “uncle,” than detailing the impact that terrorism, communism, and corruption have had on the country. These elements remain in the background, only becoming important when they affect the protagonists. Even then, they’re mentioned only in passing, via vocabulary that will baffle anyone without some background in Sri Lanka’s history and culture.
But while little is explained on the macro level, plenty of attention is paid to fleshing out the protagonists, resulting in a book that’s somewhere between The Red Tent and The Kite Runner. Chapters alternate between Latha, a domestic servant who dreams of independence, and Biso, a mother of three fleeing from an abusive husband. While the characters from both parts intertwine, all the Biso chapters are set earlier than the Latha ones, and they take place over only a few days, while Latha’s take up three decades. Still, the different flows of time don’t make either perspective less eventful.
The women manage to be both sympathetic and frustrating, often acting out of jealousy, pride, or fear in ways obviously doomed to sabotage their goals. Freeman particularly explores the way the caste system affects personal relationships, with the cruel and the compassionate alike all bearing deep-set prejudices. While the story seems soap-opera-esque at points, and the ultimate plot twist is highly predictable, Freeman’s first outing is strong, providing a distinct sense of place, and digging deeply into the complexity of relationships built between friends, strangers, and families.