Thursday, June 3, 2010
Review of Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Monica Ali's gorgeous first novel is the deeply moving story of one woman, Nazneen, born in a Bangladeshi village and transported to London at age eighteen to enter into an arranged marriage. Already hailed by the London Observer as "one of the most significant British novelists of her generation," Ali has written a stunningly accomplished debut about one outsider's quest to find her voice.
What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life. It was mantra, fettle, and challenge.
Nazneen's inauspicious entry into the world, an apparent stillbirth on the hard mud floor of a village hut, imbues in her a sense of fatalism that she carries across continents when she is married off to Chanu, a man old enough to be her father. Nazneen moves to London and, for years, keeps house, cares for her husband, and bears children, just as a girl from the village is supposed to do. But gradually she is transformed by her experience, and begins to question whether fate controls her or whether she has a hand in her own destiny.
Motherhood is a catalyst -- Nazneen's daughters chafe against their father's traditions and pride -- and to her own amazement, Nazneen falls in love with a young man in the community. She discovers both the complexity that comes with free choice and the depth of her attachment to her husband, her daughters, and her new world.
While Nazneen journeys along her path of self-realization, her sister, Hasina, rushes headlong at her life, first making a "love marriage," then fleeing her violent husband. Woven through the novel, Hasina's letters from Dhaka recount a world of overwhelming adversity. Shaped, yet not bound, by their landscapes and memories, both sisters struggle to dream -- and live -- beyond the rules prescribed for them.
Vivid, profoundly humane, and beautifully rendered, Brick Lane captures a world at once unimaginable and achingly familiar. And it establishes Monica Ali as a thrilling new voice in fiction. As Kirkus Reviews said, "She is one of those dangerous writers who see everything."
When I initially picked up this novel, I had very little idea as to what to expect, but the premise had me intrigued within the first chapter. As I read, I couldn’t help but think, “This feels similar to White Teeth [by Zadie Smith:] in terms of its premise.” I ultimately left the book feeling satisfied with it, but wasn’t particularly blown away.
Ali does a great job of characterization. I found myself laughing at the characters, but still feeling empathetic, while at the same time wondering what kind of response the story hoped to illicit. I think that Ali did a good job of constructing both characters and a plot which were realistic.
I think this is a somewhat challenging book to actually read, because parts of it are told in the form of letters written in particularly broken English, so that takes some adjusting. Ali’s writing captivated me most when she talked about cooking. I found it easy to imagine myself in the kitchen of Nazneen and Chanu’s kitchen, inhaling all of the different spices.
I’ll confess that I’ve struggled a bit with this review. I enjoyed this novel and was satisfied with it, but don’t have any real criticisms of it. I think if you consider yourself to be someone who’s interested in subjects of fate, agency and cultural tourism that this book is definitely worth your read.
Disclosure: I purchased a copy of this book.