'Focusing on a cross-section of the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, a community all but invisible to the rest of London, Ali's novel is warm, shrewd, startling, and hugely readable; the sort of book you race through greedily.' OBSERVER
Nazneen is a teenager forced into an arranged marriage with a man considerably older than her--a man whose expectations of life are so low that misery seems to stretch ahead for her. Fearfully leaving the sultry oppression of her Bangladeshi village, Nazneen finds herself cloistered in a small flat in a high-rise block in the East End of London. Because she speaks no English, she is obliged to depend totally on her husband. But it becomes apparent that, of the two, she is the real survivor: more able to deal with the ways of the world, and a better judge of the vagaries of human behaviour. She makes friends with another Asian girl, Razia, who is the conduit to her understanding of the unsettling ways of her new homeland.
This is a novel of genuine insight, with the kind of characterisation that reminds the reader at every turn just what the novel form is capable of. Every character (Nazneen, her disappointed husband and her resourceful friend Razia) is drawn with the complexity that can really only be found in the novel these days. In some ways, the reader is given the same all-encompassing experience as in a Dickens novel: humour and tragedy rub shoulders in a narrative that inexorably grips the reader. Whether or not Monica Ali can follow up this achievement is a question for the future; it's enough to say right now that Brick Lane is an essential read for anyone interested in current British fiction. --Barry Forshaw
Nazneen's story, at first glance, is highly intriguing - a Bangladeshi woman in an arranged marriage, shipped off to a husband she's never met in London. Initially this remains interesting, but that soon fades as the story unfolds painfully slowly, with little sense of direction. Like so many Booker nominees, Ali takes 5 pages to say something that could be conveyed in a single sentence. She seems incapable of writing directly, always using complicated symbols that the reader has to untangle, or otherwise be left with a text that always seems to be hinting at something just out of shot. Consequently the text often feels like nothing is happening at all, unless you try to read into every single word Ali writes: professional critics may love subtexts, but I certainly do not if it's the *only* interesting layer in the novel. Essentially, everything takes far too long to happen, and the novel feels suffocating as a result. Of course, this may be Ali's intention, to illustrate how Nazneen feels in her arranged life over which she has no control, but this doesn't make reading Brick Lane any easier.
Despite this, Ali has a gift for potraying strong characters who you feel could really exist. A great deal of empathy is felt for Nazneen, and her sister Hasina, whose tragic life in Bangladesh illustrates another path Nazneen might have taken if she had tried to buck the repressive system. Hasina is perhaps my favourite character in the book: she refuses to let life cow her, even through extreme poverty and prostitution. It's a little irritating that her poignant letters to Nazneen, through which we discover her story, are the weakest part of the text. They're supposed to read like the words of someone partially literate, but as another reviewer noted, mixing poor syntax with beautiful and insightful imagery just doesn't work. It sounds forced and reminds us it's Monica Ali writing and not Hasina, making the whole text feel a little contrived and artificial.
Brick Lane suffers most of all from being an obvious first novel, however much the critics are already calling Monica Ali a natural super-author. I'm not saying she can't write - not at all, she can write prose with the best of them - but she hasn't yet learned how to keep her writing down to the bare essentials. Far too much of the story is superfluous - the book is just too long, for no justifiable reason. It seems that Ali had so many ideas she wanted to put into her book that she was prepared to twist the plot this way and that to fit in everything that she wanted to say. The story suffers as a result, repeatedly losing momentum (and thus my interest) thanks to incidental scenes which serve only to make another point about the difficulties faced by a Bangladeshi woman in an arranged marriage abroad. It often feels like the story has been put on hold for the sake of another bullet-point on a big list of "issues" Ali had next to her keyboard.
So, that probably sounds all very negative - but that's unfair because this is still a good book. It is often insightful and enlightening, and occasionally it is wise and very enjoyable. However, it is not the masterpiece so many critics seem determined to make it out to be. I just want to add a little balance to their hyperbole: for the average reader like me who doesn't love books just because they use heaps of symbolism and metaphor, or are clever just for the sake of being clever (think: Martin Amis), Brick Lane is more heavy going than it should be. It is still a rewarding read, but definitely not an easy one.
It would be a mistake to confuse the fact that Nanzeen is sheltered, however, with the idea that this novel is confined. It is a much more wide-ranging book that that. Politics, religion, love and, most important of all, intricate family dynamics are the driving forces behind this excellent debut from Ali. There is a lack of showiness that is admirable. She does not want to impress you with tricks and magic - the false truths of the conjurer. Instead, what Ali does is place, layer by layer, a subtle narrative worked around the figure of Nanzeen. The book, like the seam work Nanzeen eventually manages to find, allows the ordinary to invest life with something more than the sum of its parts.
This is not a perfect book by any means, though in most part it is very well told. The letters from Hasina that allow a window into the life Nanzeen may well have led had she stayed at home, and punctuate the story taking place near Brick Lane, can be distracting and perhaps do not quite work. And it also seems sometimes as if Chanu is too much of a cliché, a laughable misogynist, convinced he is better than he is and constantly let down by a world that takes him for a fool.
But Ali rescues this situation, this potential slide into adequacy. When talking to Dr Azad, Chanu's unlikely and seemingly antagonistic friend, near the end of the book, Ali shows us something in the relationship of the doctor and Nanzeen's husband that Nanzeen herself never saw. And without wishing to give away the end, there is much in Chanu's character that you do not see through Nanzeen's eyes. Ali avoids triteness by being true to the reality of her protagonist. Nanzeen has a sheltered life forced upon her - a Muslim attitude that Ali calls quietly into question throughout the novel - but as we see this painted as an unworkable structure in modern Britain, we also see that our heroine, not speaking English and not allowed out on her own, misses out on a great deal. It is only as she strikes out into her new world, decades after arriving there, that she begins to see just how little she really knows.
It seems that modern British fiction often ignores what is happening right now, in a way that it never did before. More than anything, Brick Lane addresses just how life has been for ordinary Muslims living in London in the last few years - without histrionics, without flashes of unlikely hyperbole, but with warmth and style and grace. Brick Lane doesn't teem with life and history like, to pick a perhaps unfair example, Rushdie's Midnight's Children, but it does work very well as an example of a young writer who has captured human truths that most everyone who ever tried to write a book would kill for.
Arguably, it is the fundamental task of a story teller to keep you interested in your characters, especially the central one; however good or bad, rich or poor, bright or foolish, we need to want to know what happens to them. And I grew to realise the novel's failure to hold my attention was symptomatic of a fatal flaw: Nazneen, the passive protagonist (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) bored me.
Furthermore, when I eventually reached the affair, my irritation was compounded; Karim/Nazneen seemed to just ‘happen’ from nowhere, with no real build up or explanation, and given the cultural barriers to such a liaison, this left me feeling unconvinced, mystified.
I reached the end feeling short changed; forced to ponder on the nature of the book industry. Timing suggests Brick Lane may well have been bought hot on the heels of White Teeth, by publishers keen to profit from the bandwagon. The parallels – ethnic epic/muslim fundamentalism/contemporary London setting/young attractive (for which read marketable) female author - are obvious, but it’s humourless, lacking insight and flat in comparison. Equally, the editor could have done his/her job better too; much of the prose is repetitive and lumpen – it could have been viciously hacked in places, and elements of the story built up to add credibility in others.
In short, a disappointment, unworthy of the fuss and literary plaudits it has received. (And I’m sorry to report the majority of my book group agreed. ) The best thing about this book? The one thing you shouldn’t judge it by – it’s glorious cover.
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