There are already a number of reviews of this novel online that each make points I would like to echo. For starters, Debbie Lee Wesselman summarizes the novel:
Told in alternating chapters — one from the point-of-view of Latha and the other in the first-person narration of Biso – A Disobedient Girl unfolds piece-by-piece, guided by the thematic forces of karma and destiny, despite the best efforts of its characters.Though the novel never explicitly flags the concept of karma, the story definitely reads as one that elucidates characters enmeshed in an understanding of morality (good and bad) that is karmic in quality and nature. Karma isn't simply cause-and-effect in the novel, though, and seems much more nuanced than popular (American) culture understandings of it. I'm not versed enough in the concept to see how much the novel is engaging with some of those thorny issues of fatalism, pre-destination, and behavior or perhaps how Buddhist versus Hindu versions of karma might be in tension. (Side note: Set in Sri Lanka, the novel focuses primarily on Sinhalese characters, the majority ethnic group of the island nation who in turn are mainly Buddhists. Throughout the novel, these Sinhalese-identified characters often disparagingly mention the Tamils, the next largest ethnic group of the country who are predominantly Hindu. More than ethnic and religious difference, though, the novel works through the characters' negotiations with class and caste. The marriages of various characters are described frequently in terms of how one partner marries "down" in terms of the social hierarchy.)
As noted in the quotation above, the novel consists of two alternating storylines. The first follows Latha, a servant girl of the Vithanage family, in third-person, past tense point of view. The second is in first-person, present tense point of view for Biso, a mother of three young children traveling from the southern coast to the northern hill country. Latha's story makes many temporal leaps, covering decades of her life from when she is about age six to age thirty. Biso's story, though often delving into her past through memories, takes place on a cross-country train ride that lasts just a brief two days. The structure, of course, creates a relationship between these two women and the two stories. The novel does a wonderful job of holding that relationship at arm's length while providing little hints of stronger connections throughout.
Latha's story deals primarily with the contradictions of the servant girl raised alongside the privileged daughter Thara of the wealthy family. Most interestingly, the novel traces how the friendship that forms between the girls is always in tension with the mistress-servant relationship. Latha's story is also about her coming of age and her coming to a sense of what it means to be a woman through sex and her body. The relationships between members of the family, particular between Mr. and Mrs. Vithanage, are wonderfully fraught--troubled ways of relating to intimate, loved ones that the novel shows us as resounding forward into the lives of everyone touched.
Biso is a woman with three young children who sneaks them all away from her husband in a coastal town towards her family who live in the hill up-country. This storyline cements the feminist leanings of the novel, examining especially how Biso pushes against the expectations of her society and neighbors that she be a dutiful wife to her abusive and unloving husband. LIke other well-known female protagonists in literature, she also reclaims a sense of agency and vitality through her affair with another man, and that relationship describes a different kind of relationship that she has to sex and her body.
The book blurb and other promotional material for the novel all mention that this novel is set "against the volatile events of the last forty years of Sri Lankan history," but the novel itself offers very little historical information. There are references to the JVP, young protestors of the establishment, politicians who give people hope for change, and politicians who have a pro-nativist stance (opposed primarily to colonialist/foreign presence), but these moments are often in passing and never explained or even rooted to a particular date and easily verifiable historical event. In general, I agree with S. Krishna who writes,
I also wish this novel had taught the reader more about Sri Lankan history. While there are some mentions of politics, it is clear that the reader has to already be familiar with the history of the country in order to understand what is going on. While it was an interesting social commentary, I don’t really feel like I followed what was going on in the background enough to learn anything new.Which is to say, though the political context seems utterly crucial to circumscribing the lives of the main characters, very little is explained. Of course, this burden to teach the reader or to be a translator of experiences and cultures that might be foreign to the mainstream American audience is a difficult one for non-white writers to negotiate.
At the level of reading pleasure and identification with plot and characters, Ali notes,
This book isn't bursting with likeable characters. Latha's situation is understandably intolerable to her, but the things she does in response are cringe-worthy. This is an effective way of forcing readers to look at the larger issues, the societal factors that make this character who she is.It is always tricky when major characters are unlikeable or consistently make the wrong choices, but I think Ali is right to note that in this novel, those "cringe-worthy" responses tend to gesture outwards away from Latha as simply a failed person and instead to mark out larger forces that constrain her life. I personally loved the story and the characters (though my pleasure might be of the sort of watching a train wreck).
The author's web site offers a list of other Sri Lankan writers as well as links to Freeman's journalistic writing.