Where is my village? Where do I live? I live on this train. I used to live in one place and I will live in another but now I live in this perfect place between the past and the future, the known and the unknown, the bad and the good. – from A Disobedient Girl, page 128 –
Sri Lanka is located in Southern Asia, an island which lies in the Indian Ocean south of India. The war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists began in 1983 and the resulting ethnic conflict has contributed to thousands of deaths. Despite a cease-fire negotiated by Norway in 2002 between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), renewed violence occurred in 2006. It is against this political backdrop, spanning a 30 year period, that Ru Freeman’s debut novel unfolds.
A Disobedient Girl begins as two parallel stories. Biso, a mother of three who is fleeing her abusive husband, envisions a future of hope and new beginnings but her journey quickly becomes disastrous. As one unpredictable event after another occurs, Biso must make decisions which will have a lasting impact on those closest to her.
Such bliss is not meant to last. In my husband’s house, my children were my real gifts: the older ones had turned fear over and over in my stomach until it molted into rage, and perhaps it was that rage, that sudden fearlessness in me, that had caught Siri’s eye and brought me my youngest, the second daughter, who finally gave wings to my feet. Wings. Or rails. I am grateful for this chance, for the future, for the train that is carrying us there, its carriages full of strangers, kind to one another, kinder than anyone had been to me in my husband’s village. I am grateful for its spaces, which fill up and release people, empty of fear. – from A Disobedient Girl, page 123 –
Latha (a servant girl) and her mistress Thara (the daughter of high caste parents) grow up together as friends. But when Latha makes a fateful decision to seek revenge against Thara’s mother, the girls’ friendship and Latha’s future is threatened. Latha is sent to a convent, then two years later returns to Thara’s home where she must deal with her own personal desires and the hope for a better future despite the limitations of class and prejudice.
Latha froze. There is was again: a proper servant. That was all they had expected of her. Despite her education, regardless of it, and her looks, she was supposed to be no more, no less. Servant. – from A Disobedient Girl, page 324 –
The novel is narrated in alternating viewpoints: first through the third person limited point of view of Latha over a 30 year span of time; and then through the first person point of view of Biso over the course of a few days. This unique technique is effective in building tension and setting the stage for a surprising twist at the end.
A Disobedient Girl examines the destructive power of secrets, betrayal, loss, and domestic violence, and the power of love to overcome tragedy. Sri Lanka is not only a source, but a destination country for the trafficking of men and women for the purposes of involuntary servitude and commercial sexual exploitation…and in Freeman’s debut novel, this aspect of Sri Lanka is revealed through the eyes of her characters who experience these dangers first hand.
Ru Freeman’s writing is stunning, beautifully crafted and powerful. She carefully reveals her characters’ desires, motivations and flaws…and in so doing, draws the reader into their stories. I found myself marking passage after passage of this extraordinary novel. One passage reads:
All my children grab my body, pressing close to me, screaming with fake terror. I listen to the echoes of other children’s voices from compartments to either side of ours. These shrieks that I have heard each time we pass through a tunnel lift my spirits. They are the sounds of childhood and innocence. When we are out of the tunnel and my children let go of me, I feel unmoored. – from A Disobedient Girl, page 123 –
Indeed, I felt unmoored at times while reading A Disobedient Girl – transported to another time and place, experiencing things which most Americans can only imagine, and feeling moved and haunted by the book’s characters…who although fictional, could be almost any woman living under such circumstances. Freeman does not spare her readers from the raw emotions of fear, anger, or desperation. But, she also allows for the hope of redemption and salvation.
Like the train which Biso boards, A Disobedient Girl moves relentlessly forward towards its heartbreaking, yet hopeful conclusion. When I turned the final page I felt awed by the power of the human spirit which is able to survive the worst of tragedies; and the strength of people to continue on in the face of loss and overwhelming odds.
Readers who love literary fiction and who want to be wowed by a writer’s talent, should look no further.
Listen to Ru Freeman speaking about her novel: