Tuesday, 18 January 2005

Monica Ali: Brick Lane (2003)

Edition: Doubleday, 2003
Review number: 1282

Since the success of Midnight's Children, there have been quite a few novels about the Indian subcontinent; but there are not so many about the experience of the immigrant community in the UK (or at least, not so many that are well known). The most obvious writer to compare Monical Ali to is Hanif Kureishi, but his novels portray very different people. Brick Lane is about the poorest of Bangladeshi immigrants, living in a rundown Whitechapel housing estate, one of those places where each block seems to contain large numbers of people originating from the same village, huddled together as a way to shelter from the strangeness of urban London.

Nazneen has been sent over from Bangladesh in the early eighties to make an arranged marriage to a much older man, but one who prides himself on being advanced and modern (unlike some of the men, who hardly allow their wives to leave the home). Brick Lane is about how she comes to terms with the city, taking her story right up to the time of writing. Nazneen's life is compared with that of her sister, who remained in Bangladesh and who had a much harder time.

Brisk Lane is a much praised bestseller for a debut novel, and yet I did not feel it was as good as I expected it to be. Life in these estates is pretty grim (as I saw when I was a student in the area, and as I am sure Monica Ali knows full well). There are difficult times for the novels's characters - it climaxes in a riot - but they always seem to be more at arm's length than they should be. The setting is nothing like as bleak and certainly not as expressively conveyed as Zola's Paris, for example. This is partly because description in this novel is very sparse; Ali is concerned with Nazneen as a character to the exclusion of everything else, and she is (for me) too placid and passive to carry the novel. The subject matter is perhaps one reason for the success of Brick Lane - it's very much the sort of thing that is bound to be praised by the majority of the liberal community, and it obviously struck a chord with many readers. It didn't work so well for me, for some reason.

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