By Ru Freeman
My last but one destination for the Orbis Terranum, was Sri Lanka; a land so familiar yet strangely unknown. This debut novel of Ru Freeman was a charming peek into Sinhalese-Sri Lanka - A breather of class, political turmoil and the women who are caught in the web of unperceivable changes.
At the center of the novel is Latha, the protagonist, who is difficult to be loved, but stands out for her dignity and unbreakable spirit. She is introduced to us as the servant, who also doubles as the childhood companion of Thara, the one bestowed with luxuries and status that money can buy. The life of these two women, since the time they are girls is interwoven with a great many moments of humility, love, pain that comes with it and an unattainable secret. It is interesting how by social strata Latha the server and Thara, the giver, are different, yet in life they are so impossibly human with the same wants.
As Freeman brings this uncanny friendship through immensely eloquent writing, she surprises the reader with the character of Biso, a mother of three running from a tyrannical husband. The reader is thrown into a pendulum ride alternating between Latha and Biso, chapter after chapter; while she leaps through Latha’s life in years, the story of Biso spans seventy two hours. Although the link was difficult to make as the book warmed slowly, the parallelism of the narrative takes shape eventually. Once the stories of Latha and Biso are tenuously tied, it is only an anxious wait through pages, unknowing what tragedies loom to the finish.
The men in the novel, from Mr. Vinthage to Gehan, are all displayed as weak. But in the back drop of the intriguing women – insolent and domineering Mrs. Vinthage, determined and ambitious Thara, resolute Latha, sensitive and bold Biso, the men are but unfastened links to bring their lives together.
Freeman’s writing is beautifully expressive. One only needs to close the eyes and imagine the tea estates, rich and poverty stricken Colombo, the political unrest and the calming sea-smell that wafts so easily. I totally loved the descriptions of food and flavor that more than aid in ones understanding of a nation. Even the use of Sinhala language in the right places for that perfect affection and impact left a wonderful after-tone.
If there is anything I would change about the writing, it would be to let the story flow and not be confined to the strict cyclic chapter intervals. Her characters, so brilliantly human with flaws manifold, stood their ground and did not emanate sympathy and sadly didn’t make it easy to love them either. As the novel ended, I could feel the heart-break, but it wasn’t walloped enough to leave me exhausted. I could close the book and not be haunted.
I definitely look forward to more from Freeman and recommend this book to all who wish to take a peep of Sri Lanka from a discreet stand point.