“A Disobedient Girl” chronicles two women’s struggle for well-being in their native Sri Lanka. Latha is a young, orphan servant girl to the Vithanages, a higher caste family with one daughter, Thara, of approximately Latha’s own age. They grow up as friends, but are not oblivious to the caste differences among them. When Latha is refused money from Mrs. Vithanage for shoes, she strikes back against the family – creating a downward spiral that consumes all parties for decades.
Biso is a middle-aged woman who escapes the abuse of her alcoholic husband by taking her three children on a train ride to their Aunt’s house, where they hope to find some sort of comfort and semblance of normality. She meets many people on the train ride and soon realizes that she will not have a simple journey.
This beginning of Latha’s story seemed akin to The Kite Runner. Two children grow up together with a caste difference, under the backdrop of a country in turmoil. Both authors have a background in their respective countries (Hosseini in Afghanistan and Freeman in Sri Lanka). As “A Disobedient Girl” unfolds, you really get a sense for some of the elements missing from the novel.
While Hosseini was vivid in his portrayal of a country in turmoil, Freeman barely scratched the surface. One reviewer I read stated this perfectly when she said the “country (was) clearly outlined but not well coloured-in.” I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. I learned absolutely nothing about the culture and history of Sri Lanka, which is what I picked up the book for originally. For a Sri Lankan journalist with years of covering the country, I was upset that such potential for information was omitted.
While Hosseini created a world where I felt the struggle and longing of his characters, I felt little passion for Freeman’s protagonists. This had little to do with the plot, which made me WANT to feel for the struggles of both Latha and Biso, as well as some of the more minor characters. I just felt that the story lacked passion, despite the yearning for new lives. The struggle was stated but it was not felt, and I found this disheartening.
The novel lacked conciseness and only towards the end of the novel did I feel compelled to pick up my own pace to find out what happens. The reader knows the stories will eventually come together, and while obvious, the drama in the ending made the reader want to reach a conclusion. I could see this being a novel where people would give up half way through, but it’s worth a read until the end.
I have no literary background, but there was a gaping hole left in the story of Biso by the not delving into a key theme. There was a passing comment in Sri Lanka about how impossible it is to discover the truth – that Sri Lankans will muddy stories to suit their own purposes. Freeman gives the feeling that this quest for truth will be explored, but it never really is. This could have redeemed the novel slightly and also opened a window to the events of the time.
Freeman’s writing style was simplistic, but I didn’t find myself wanting a pad of paper to write down quotes (something I usually do). Freeman was a decent storyteller, but she had no insight - no theories on how the world works that we could take with us at the end of the day to create a timeless story, remembered by readers.
Overall, I was disappointed in the work as a whole. The plot was a good one, but the writing didn’t do the story the justice. It was an ambitious attempt by Freeman that fell short.
"Maybe that was how it was with women, she thought, whatever their status; eventually their men would be found unworthy." 92-93
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