When Brick Lane was published three years ago, Monica Ali was hailed as a great nineteenth-century novelist who just happened to have published her first book in 2003. Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to a Bengali father and an English mother, and raised in England, Ali wrote about an immigrant experience unfamiliar to most English readers. Brick Lane was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, among other awards, and The New Republic‘s James Wood cited it as an example of immigrant literature with the potential to “return fiction to its nineteenth century gravity.” Such praise could make a writer cautious, inviting her to recycle her success; at worst, it could turn into a lead weight, preventing her from even starting a new project.
Ali seems to have been untroubled by that weight of expectation: Her new novel, Alentejo Blue, is a genuine departure, a bold experiment in narration that presents a multitude of complex characters within a relatively short book. Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi woman who moves to one of London’s South Asian ghettos to marry a much older man. The story is told almost exclusively from her point of view and takes place primarily in the couple’s small apartment; the novel’s precise beauty comes from the very insularity of Nazneen’s world. While Alentejo Blue unfolds in a similarly claustrophobic community, the book’s succession of narrators gives it a more fluid, expansive kind of grace. If Brick Lane belonged stylistically to the nineteenth century, the new book jumps forward in time. Modernist in form (the epigraph is from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday”), it explores the decidedly twenty-first-century obsession with what is foreign and what is local, and how the mysterious category of the “global” might break down that distinction.
Alentejo Blue takes place almost entirely in Mamarrosa, a village in Portugal’s south-central Alentejo region, known for its cork and olive trees. The village is either impossibly backward or heartbreakingly picturesque, depending on which character is observing it. The nine narrators include three natives of Mamarrosa, three expatriates and three tourists. All of the chapters are written in the third person (except for two); each character has his or her own chapter (except for one young couple, who share). Trying to generalize about Alentejo Blue makes you aware that it’s the kind of novel that breeds exceptions; although certain local events carry through the chapters, each character’s preoccupations dominate the narrative landscape for as long as he or she is center stage.
Apart from the private dramas of its inhabitants, there isn’t a lot going on in Mamarrosa. João, who is 84 when the novel begins and whose chapter includes memories of the Salazar dictatorship–in effect, giving the book a historical preamble–is the only character whose narrative takes place in the past. Two present-day story lines involve the whole village, but they’re more like pieces of gossip than plots. The first is the plight of the Potts family: Chrissie has left England with her husband, the unsubtly named Michael “China” Potts, who is conducting stoned experiments in raising livestock on a run-down farm in Mamarrosa. Their promiscuous teenage daughter, Ruby, is constantly getting herself in trouble with the village’s male population, while her younger brother, Jay, plays truant, roaming the countryside on his bike. Mamarrosa’s inhabitants are happy to whisper about the Pottses, but the bigger story is the eagerly anticipated return of Marco Afonso Rodrigues, a local boy who left town, got rich and is supposedly coming home to build a luxury hotel.