There is a moment in Brick Lane when Nanzeen reads one of her sister's letters, sent to her in Britain from back in Bangladesh. Nanzeen, and by extension the reader of Brick Lane, is suddenly, and violently, taken to another world. Hasina, the beautiful younger sister who ran off to make a love match rather than allow herself to be part of an arranged marriage as Nanzeen did, recounts how her friend is in hospital because her husband pored acid over her face as a punishment. She will not live long. It is horrific and startling, and comes more as a shock because so much of Nanzeen's life is relatively sheltered. She is a Muslim woman who rarely leaves the house, much less the estate in Tower Hamlets on which she, her husband Chanu and her two daughters Shahana and Bibi live.
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.