on 7 July 2004
Ever since its original publication and almost instantaneous shortlisting for various awards, Brick Lane has been on my "to get round to reading" list. From the rave reviews across the cover from all the papers, I thought it would be a sure-fire hit with me too. However, this wasn't the case.
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.
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.
on 10 June 2003
Over the past couple of months, there has been quite a bit of publicity surrounding Monica Ali, and how Granta named her as one of the UK's Top 20 young authors, even though at that time she had had nothing published.
Well, Granta were right, and Brick Lane more than lives up to the advance hype accorded to Ms. Ali. The Amazon review above gives some idea of the story, so I'll not repeat that. What it doesn't mention is that throughout the story of Nazneen's life in Tower Hamlets, there are letters from her sister Hasina, back in Bangladesh. These letters vividly portray (in broken English) daily life in Bangladesh, and the dangers of making a "love" marriage, reflected in the life of one of the characters in London.
Although the story of Nazneen's marriage to Chanu is a strong story, the real strengths of this novel are the characterisation and perceptive views of life in general. Particularly well-realised is Mrs. Islam, who turns into a very frightening old lady. Soon after Mrs. Islam's final personal appearance in the book, there is an unrelated moment of such pain, that it was almost unbearable to read. Writing such as that cannot be argued with.
The Amazon reviewer casts a little doubt on whether Monica Ali can follow this up, but that really does not matter. (A continuation would actually be very welcome.) This is a very, very good novel that gives voice to a London community rarely heard from, and also its international counterpart. If you have bothered to read this far, then don't hesitate any longer, buy this book today.
on 17 July 2015
Damn this book is definitely not a page turner. Had to read this as part of my English Literature A-level because it's supposedly an acclaimed novel. However to me this was the most draining and tedious read, with such a slow pace that I had to drag myself to the end, re-reading sentences that weren't processed due to their lack of well...anything. Much of the book was irrelevant and in-case that's not off putting enough the ending is off no real significance. Any build up (if you were to consider there any at all) led to nothing, with a extremely dull and unsatisfying ending. The only positive thing I can get out of this book is that it portrays the contrasting cultures of a strong Muslim father and his favourably westernising children....but even then I'm sure there are a thousand other books that do it much better.
on 10 May 2004
Having seen Monica Ali speak at the 2003 Bangladeshi New Year Festival in East London, in which she promised a book that accurately reflected Brit-Bangladeshis, I eagerly awaited the release of this book so i could get my teeth into it. As a Brit-Bangladeshi myself, I was keen to see part of my culture out there for all to digest (at long last!)
Having been so eager to get started on Brick Lane, I was rather disappointed when I found myself having to force myself to continue with the book (most of the other bdeshis I know had abandoned the book a quarter of the way through cos it is excruciatingly stereotypical and clicheed all the way through) but fortunately, i did manage to get to the end.
what do i think of it? well, there's very little in there that refelcts bangladeshi culture, and it seems that monica must have decided to shred all of that accurate research she carried out to find out what bdeshi's are really like and substituted it with her own exciting fantasy world..... but if its fiction that you are after its a'ite on the lowest possible branch of a'ite. there isnt anything in there that you havnt read before.
if you want a good laugh, read the sister's letters. they're hysterical. 'i... myself.... living.... no money'. fergodsake, whats the need for the broken english when she obviously would have written to her own sister in bangla? aaaaagh! acurate portrayal my foot.
goodness gracious me, eat your heart out!
on 5 July 2005
I just finished reading Brick Lane and found it enthralling. When reading I hope to learn something new in an entertaining way and this book definitely hit the mark. I found the way Nazneens new life in Britain is described through her eyes most illuminating. To be honest I never really thought about what it might mean to give up a life of hardship but well known and surrounded by family and friends to come to live in the Western World with its emphasis on individuality and privacy. When I see young women in traditional Muslim dress on the street I often wonder what goes on behind the veil, and even though Monica Ali surely does not speak for all of them she opened a window into an unknown world.
However, I have two criticisms. First, that Hasina's letters are written in broken English nearly drove me mad, especially in a section where there are nearly 30 pages of jumbled English to get through. Why Monica Ali chooses to write those letters in broken English I would love to know. As the recipient of the letters does not speak any English at the beginning of the novel this hardly makes sense - is it to convey the point that the young woman is barely literate in her native tongue?
My second criticism would be that the love story between Nazneen and Karim never manages to sound true. The motivation of neither her nor him to break with the strict religious code they both seem to uphold is never explained and Karim remains a one-dimensional character.
That being said I would still recommend this book strongly. It is a very entertaining and often funny read that manages to let you walk in somebody elses's shoes.
on 18 March 2004
Incentivised by the carrot of an extramarital affair foreshadowed at the start of the novel, and the fact it was the choice of the book group to which I belong, I ploughed into this with enthusiasm, and initially I believed I'd zip through it no problem, as the beginning was promising. But 100 pages in my mind began to wander - and continued to do so throughout.
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.
I was disappointed with this book. Brick Lane had the potential to be a good story, but it is overlong. There are far too many scenes and characters in the book than the plot justifies. In particular the letters from Hasina are almost unreadable and add very little to the book after the first few. It's a pity a lot of the chaff wasn't stripped out before Brick Lane was published, and it might have been a much better read.
on 19 July 2004
Monica Ali have received a great deal of positive press for Brick Lane over the last year, and this hype has perhaps proved to be damaging to Ali and the way that I viewed the book - my overall feeling after finishing the book was one of disappointment rather than believing that I had stumbled upon a great new literary talent.
The book tells the story of Nazneen, a girl from a small Bangladeshi village who enters into an arranged marriage with Chanu, a well educated man with a flat in a tower block in Tower Hamlets.
The book's first half is okay, showing the contradictions both in the life that Nazneen must now live, and the contrast in life in the UK and Bangladesh - most notably the diet of the poor. Whilst Nazneen initially views the flat she has moved into as a definite step above from her previous life, the frustrations of the immigrant population is summed up most definitely in Chanu. After some letters to contrast Nazneen's position with that of her sister who has remained in Bangladesh, we move forward to view Nazneen struggling to bring up two daughters. The second half is stronger, and represents better the dashed hopes of the entire community, struggling with problems, especially with Razia's troubled relationship with her son.
Nazneen's relationship with Karim is spoiled slightly by the blurb, but also doesn't entirely ring true. Ironically, despite its main failing being that it was too long, the book abruptly seems to be cut off when there is the chance for the regeneration of the community.
There are many good characters in the book - Chanu, Razia, Dr Assad and Mrs Islam, yet they are all caricatures, and there is little seriousness to contrast them against given the nature of the book - it is not a comedy but a drama - there is not enough space for so many characters like this. As a result the book doesn't really stitch together terribly well - it is definitely less than the sum of its parts.
This criticism is perhaps a bit harsh to lay at the doorstep of Ali: it is after all only her first novel. However, her novel cannot live up to the hype. If she learned some discipline, and cut around one hundred pages off the novel she would be a much better novelist. She has potential - the question is whether she is allowed to develop into a great novelist, or whether her next novel can live up to the weight of expectation.
on 26 August 2003
I bought this book on the strength of comparisons between it and Zadie Smith's "White Teeth", which I loved for its fresh prose and superb characterisation.
While I enjoyed "Brick Lane", I felt it lacked the marks of brilliance that glowing press reviews had led me to expect. The prose was certainly competent, but it didn't shine for me. I enjoy reading most when taken aback by a fresh turn of phrase or unexpected imagery. Not overly-clever, deliberate literary fiction, but the kind that demonstrates the writer is completely at home with words and language. I didn't find that in Ali's novel. Though there are some fresh touches, they are balanced with occasional cliche, and I find it hard to accept the use of the similie "like a moth to a flame" in any work of modern fiction, so was very surprised to find it (I *think* without irony), here.
That said, I feel that Ali's strength is in characterisation, and Chanu and Nazneen will stay with me as vivid characters. Razia and the children too. Even Karim! Having read other Amazon reviews, I do wonder whether Chanu will blend with some of Zadie Smith's and Hanif Kreishi's characters in my mind over time. Though Ali's characters are not overly-drawn, perhaps not entirely unique, I am left with a strong sense of them, which I feel is a strength.
I agree with the reviewer who pointed out how well Ali dealt with September 11th and its impact on this community. It was subtle and touching. Another strength for me would be the fact that I felt drawn into a community so different from my own. Of course, I cannot tell how accurate a portrayal this is, but I trust that Ali has a much better grasp of that reality than I do.
I enjoyed reading "Brick Lane", and felt drawn back to continue with each chapter, but it wasn't a novel I couldn't put down, nor one I couldn't bear to finish. It engaged me, but didn't take my breath away.
Not quite what I'd hoped for.