Saturday, 3 November 2012

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman

Latha is a servant girl, bought up alongside the daughter of a rich Sri Lankan family.  Exposed daily to the luxuries that wealth can bring, she resents her status as a servant and disobeys in small ways - stealing a bar of rose-scented soap for her own use or making extra lime juice to drink.  As she grows up, the differences between her and Thara become more apparent but their lives are so entwined that Latha has no option to break free.  Caught in a complex mix of love and hate and against the back drop of a violent civil war, her small acts of disobedience gradually grow larger, with consequences for everyone.  Told alongside Latha's story is that of Biso, a women fleeing an abusive husband with three small children in tow.   She hopes to make it to the hills to be taken in by an Aunt, but the war is escalating and her journey is rife with danger.

I really enjoyed A Disobedient Girl, mainly because of Latha herself.  I've seen reviews complaining that Latha is an unlikable main character as she's not the most moral of people.  And whilst that is true, I think this would have been a weaker book if Latha was simply written as a martyr.  I liked that she was stubborn, proud and determined not to take her situation lying down; she wouldn't roll over and accept things the way they were.  Throughout the book, Latha fought with whatever weapons she had available to her, even if that led to her doing questionable things, for example using sex to get back at her mistress early in the novel.  I loved her spirit and resourcefulness and her constant hope that she could make a better life for herself.   Even though she was in an impossible situation due to prejudice, she rarely gave in to bitterness.  Freeman is also a political journalist and this is very apparent in the way she writes about the situation Latha faced;

"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.  The thing that had concealed her intentions, her desires, her womanliness, her very soul."

I also enjoyed the dual narrative aspect of the book.  Chapters are alternated between Latha and Biso, and whilst it took me some time to get to grips with the fact that Latha's story unfolds over decades and Biso's only over a few days, the break in perspectives worked well.  I was happy with the link between the two characters when it was revealed and also felt the ending was in keeping with plot.  I also liked that the civil war stayed in the background of the story; too often it feels like authors from countries that have experienced war or political upheaval feel pressure to make this the center of their novels, like this is the only way people in the West will want to read their work.  The war in A Disobedient Girl is there, but only ever as a backdrop to the story of Latha and Biso.  I liked reading about other aspects of Sri Lankan life.  In the same way, I liked that Freeman didn't feel the need to explain every new thing to the reader, she just immersed us in Sri Lankan culture and let us find our own way.

The only criticism I would make of this book is that it was a bit over-long and slow at the start.  It seemed to be a long while before events started to happen and the middle section could have been edited down.  Other than that, it was a great read and I'll be keeping an eye out for any more books written by Freeman in the future.

Source: Library
First Published: 2009
Edition Read: Penguin UK, 2011
Score: 4.5 out of 5


  1. This sounds like one I'll be putting on my wish list. Thanks for the great review!

  2. Sounds very interesting. I like a complicated protagonist! Gives a reader something to really consider.

  3. I'm beginning to think most books are too long! lol This does sound good to me.

  4. This sounds like one I'll have to look for. I like a protagonist that isn't perfect. I like characters that are like REAL people, complicated and deep. :)

  5. I'm starting to be wary of dual narrative books, but the book definitely sounds interesting. The moral ambiguity would probably make for good discussion. Thanks for the review!

  6. It's always surprising to me when readers seem to believe that a book is only good when the protagonist is likable. It's so much more interesting when they bring more than just "nice" to the table!

  7. Soundsl like a fine and interesting book. Indeed in more than one situations housegirls or servants have used sex to get at their mistress, sometimes, even sleeping with the master of the house. I would love to read this book. Thanks for sharing.