Thursday, September 09, 2004


Brick Lane, by Monica Ali. Shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize.

I was prepared to dislike it, call it overrated. I'd saved an early (North American) review, noting the novel as one I should look into:

The miserable shock of immigration to Britain has been touched on by other writers — Naipaul, Rushdie, the Sri Lankan novelist Romesh Gunesekera — but no writer I know of has taken as her entire stretched subject the loneliness and the shabby poverty of these English near-ghettos. . . Ali's fictional world is shockingly monocultural — it contains only Bangladeshis who by choice and by necessity keep to themselves — and it is far from cheerful, even if her book is frequently comic.

My interest waned as the rest of the English-speaking world's took hold.

Months went by; I didn't even consider paying full price for it. But finally I selected it as part of my QPB introductory package.

I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

It's a quiet little novel. Nothing much happens. The opening chapters made no impression on me. But the further along I read, the more I was drawn in.

The book deserves every word of praise written about it. I'm surprised that some critics gently knocked the ending or thought the story lacked depth, seemingly compelled to level the usual criticisms against a first novel. Maybe they only do that to books strong enough to take it. (Contrast the undeservedly glowing reviews of Jhumpa Lahiris's The Namesake.)

The story is summarized elsewhere — it's Nazneen's coming-of-age story, Nazneen who was "left to her fate," who had an arranged marriage with a much older man, Nazneen barely literate, plucked out of Bangladesh and dropped into London — but I wanted to record some impressions.

The husband we dislike from the beginning, the man we thought foolish, even ridiculous, who becomes a cuckold, at first pathetic, becomes very sympathetic. It's this fool who later has the wisest things to say.

"The thing about getting older," said Chanu, "is that you don't need everything to be possible anymore, you just need some things to be certain."

Ali in telling the world through Nazneen's eyes, compels us to feel Nazneen's softening for him, and a growing respect. Chanu's relationships with the world are a mystery. We come to understand him at the same pace as Nazneen does.

"I don't know," said Chanu. "Apart form this: sometimes, when it seems the world is against you, it is tempting to side with the world."

Chani's not really the focus of the story, but he's always there, wielding so much control. A symptom of the readers' identifying with Nazneen, I got really wrapped up in trying to figure out what makes him tick.

This to say the people of Brick Lane are very complicated creatures.

This is the first novel I've read incorporating the events of September 11 into its backdrop for everyday life. A bit jarring, but sensibly dealt with. A catalyst for some of the characters, living in their Islamic microcosm.

Brick Lane is praised also in a guest opinion hosted by Maud Newton.

No comments: