Monica Ali was recently named one of Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists–an A-list of red-hot literary youth writing some of the most promising books on the contemporary scene. This was particularly interesting at the time because Ali’s first novel had not actually been published yet. She was selected on the strength of the manuscript for Brick Lane; it remained to be seen if her reviewers and readers would agree with the fanfare.
Happily, Brick Lane fulfills that early promise and establishes Ali as a writer of real literary depth and dimension. There is an elegance and a steadfast, patient, careful construction of observed detail to this prose, a meticulous layering of character and social observation that endows Brick Lane with a sophistication and maturity that might surprise readers who’ve come to expect flash and dash in modern fiction.
Ali mines much of the same territory as other young writers like Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri, whose work highlights cultural fusions, leaps between traditionalism and modernity. Their writing features sharp-eyed immigrants and their children, who make their way through alien Western landscapes, assailed by the independence and isolation of individualism, and who respond by concocting their own amalgams of lives lived in between worlds. But there’s also a certain solemn dignity to Ali’s prose that distinguishes her from many other modern writers, a stateliness more reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s gradual accumulation of detail than Smith’s flurries of wit and allusion.
Brick Lane orbits around the experiences of Nazneen, a girl from the Muslim country of Bangladesh. At her birth, the ancient midwife pronounces her stillborn, and she is very nearly left for dead. Her sudden return to life marks her as a survivor. Her mother, who is “famous for crying,” instructs Nazneen that it is a woman’s role to accept her suffering with indifference: “What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life.” While Nazneen accepts this legacy of passive stoicism, however, she still has within her an inviolable sense of determination and resolve that will take years to come to full fruition.
After her younger sister Hasina runs away with her lover, Nazneen’s angry father marries her to Chanu, a childish and pretentious older man. Chanu promptly brings Nazneen to England and treats her like an indentured servant. In England, away from her family and friends, Nazneen must face up to the immigrant’s long struggle to endure, to adapt, to re-create herself and to forge a new life. She becomes a great observer, taking in the daily comings and goings of her neighborhood. A tattooed lady sits in her window across the way, as passive as Nazneen, her strangeness manifest in her skin, in her unorthodox choices. In certain ways she is a physical totem for Nazneen’s own internalized mark of difference.
Nazneen’s life is defined by her female Bangladeshi neighbors–her close friend, the jokey Razia, and the snooping Mrs. Islam. Their lives and their perceptions of the world are spun through deep channels of gossip and rumor. When Nazneen tries to resist the tyranny of this gossipmongering, Mrs. Islam corrects her sharply, pointing out that the gossip, intrusions and general “nosiness” of their cultural community provide a real sort of security and unity and actually are symptoms of social differences between the East and the West: