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April 22, 2009

Review of Ru Freeman's 'A Disobedient Girl'

This debut novel has a gentle charm of a particularly Sinhalese-Sri Lankan flavour.

“She loved fine things and she had no doubt she deserved them.”

This is the opening sentence of the novel, and one which made me smile. A good, provocative opening sentence to reel the reader right in. This sentence alone encapsulates the protagonist’s personality and priorities, which is to shape her motivations, actions, and subsequent situations. Given a society like the Sri Lankan one with its rigid and hierarchical class structures and gender dos-and-don’ts, combined with the telling title, it was clear from the outset that our protagonist was going to break some rules, get into some trouble, and defy some societal norms.

The structure of the novel becomes apparent very quickly – 2 lines of narrative, each centred on one central female character, with the alternating chapters each headed by the name of the character (Latha and Biso) whose storyline the chapter unfolds. From the outset, the structure of the novel is slightly confusing in terms of its time frame, which is left unclear as to whether these 2 narratives are running in temporal parallel or not, while they are running in a literary parallel. The reader is also left wondering if the two narratives have a common starting point in time. At the end of the novel, it becomes clear the author needed to leave the time frames unspecified as part of her literary device in order to save an impact for the ending, but it is rather problematic for a reader who is left wondering throughout the first 350 pages or so about where to place and understand each of the 2 threads of narrative: in the present, past, recent past, far past…?

As the novel develops, the reader soon realises that whether or not the 2 narratives have the same starting point in time, they are no longer running in parallel: Latha’s narrative moved in leaps and bounds, covering a period of about a dozen years in total; Biso’s narrative only moved through a 48 hour period. There is no actual problem with the different paces of narrative, but the fact the two storylines were unravelled in parallel, chapter for chapter, back and forth like a pendulum in the reader’s present, while being uneven in temporal and narrative terms, rendered this reading experience a little like watching a person walking with one foot slightly shorter than the other. Not unpleasant, just a little uneven. The novel did not need to stick quite so rigidly to its format of alternating chapters, and could have given itself the literary fluidity of interweaving the two storylines more organically and less mechanically. However, this is a first novel, and perhaps with growing literary confidence, Freeman will structure a plot more fluid and suitable to the material, rather than adhering to a set form at the expense of narrative balance, which ironically was just what it was attempting to achieve.

The novel comes across with an exceptionally feminine consciousness, demonstrating the author’s power of observation and attention to detail, particularly details close to the feminine heart and mind. By and large, it mostly manages to avoid cliché representations, which is a praiseworthy achievement in itself, and conveys its minutiae of detail with a real sweetness and gentle touch. Both the writing style and the protagonists created encapsulate a unique type of femininity, one associated particularly with a type of Sinhalese women. The depiction of Sinhalese women of a certain class, their movements, their actions, their mental processes and pre-programmed socialisations, their affections and allegiances, is remarkably honest and faithful. The novel’s strength lies in its ability to convey 2 convincing female protagonists, characters drawn with some elegance and tremendous sympathy. These characters are extremely believable, with strong, distinctive personalities.

Not all the novel’s characters are quite as well developed; some of the secondary ones are occasionally rather 2-dimensional and do slip into stereotypes (particularly the mother-in-law characters). The male characters are all rather weak, both by deliberate design as well as in terms of skill of depiction, lacking the power of conviction which infuses the 2 protagonists. As a consequence of this uneven skill in drawing and developing male and female characters, the gender-related comments in the novel are a little less convincing than its class comments.

The novel utilises low key but very effective elements of comedy to make class comments; an example of one such aptly observed and wittily delivered:
“…a shop whose bags announced it as a place called Barefoot, with price tags that indicated one had to be quite well shod in order to afford anything from it.”
Another amusing example, of a girl choosing a candidate as future husband-material,
“Colombo Seven is best. Next is Colombo Three, Colpetty. After that…well, Colombo Five and then maybe, if everything else is absolutely perfect, even the money, then Colombo Six. Nothing else. Amma would never tolerate it, so why bother?”
Hilarious as it sounds to select a spouse by geographical location, there is truth in this tongue-in-cheek flippancy, that certain residential areas provide rough indications of social status and wealth.

There is a curious insistence throughout the novel that class and good family seems to be immutable qualities/virtues owned by a person, privileges internalised and forever within them, which is an interesting if controversial opinion: in quite a few instances sprinkled through the novel, passages imply this view:

“There was that air of goodness about them, the inner quiet that stemmed from the things they never had to miss in their lives, like three meals a day and school supplies and places to go to on holidays. Yes, an air of charity and calm well-being…”.

“People always told me what a decent family we were, how my mother must have good blood, because she was quiet.”

“…not beauty, definitely not, but sweetness, which with the blessings of her parents’ wealth and privilege, endowed it with a comforting glow.”

The characteristic that makes Latha stand out and interesting in the society which Freeman sketches, is her refusal to accept her allocated class and incessant attempts to pass off as something better than the servant which she is, coupled with her vaunted ability to recognise these supposedly intrinsic class differences accurately and at a glance, “She could spot servants from a mile away…”. The novel seems to insist that because Latha’s background is not that of a lower class or a servant class, she intrinsically aspires to more, feeling a birthright to the finer things of life. It leaves a reader speculating as to whether such sentiments may be reflective of a deep-rooted implicit assumption held by the society itself.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is how Latha utilises the weapons of the weak in order to break rules, get more than would naturally be her lot in terms of consideration, respect, as well as material goods, and also in order to revenge herself on those she feels are depriving her of those aspirations. Latha uses a variety of these classic weapons – foot-dragging, sabotage, theft, deceit, betrayal, withholding of information, etc. And as so often happens in situations of acute power imbalance, she herself is damaged in the process of damaging.

Freeman is deft enough in her sketch of class differences between mistress and maid, of the chasm between the upper classes and the serving classes, using her skill with detailed observation and depiction to highlight class markers in materials as mundane as bars of Lux soaps and Sunlight block and flake soaps. Freeman refines the juxtapositions by going beyond a simple comparison of which soaps can be afforded by which class, and instead shows how each type of soap is invested with particular meanings and associations by Latha in her imagination, and therefore how they come to flagpost concrete and telling social differences in status. This theme of class difference between mistress and maid, the more painful because lived in constant and close proximity, has been worked through by quite a number of South Asian authors in the past (e.g. Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, Tahira Naqvi’s Dying in a Strange Country, Moni Mohsin’s The End of Innocence, Anita Nair’s Sister to the Real Thing in Ladies Coupe; and by Sri Lankan authors too; Elmo Jayawardena’s Sam’s Story, Romesh Gunasekera’s The Reef, Isankya Kodithuwakku’s How Mrs Senarath Called a Marriage for Mala in The Banana Tree Crisis). That said, Freeman’s addition to this discussion is a welcome one, far from being hackneyed.

This novel is not without its flaws, but it is a high quality debut novel, providing a smooth, easy, highly enjoyable read, and one I will definitely be recommending to many others. The writing style is fluent even if not particularly lyrical, the Sinhalese words are contextually, thoughtfully included, and not brandished, and the novel as a whole is pleasantly free of heavy-handed exotica. It is, in fact, a novel distinctive for its unostentatious but easily identifiable Sri Lankan cultural flavours and markers, and for a fresh, gentle, charming depiction of Sri Lankan womanhood and femininity, and their circumscribed complexities.

Posted by Lisa Lau at 10:32 AM | Comments (1)