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:
“The white people,” she said, “they all do what they want. It’s nobody’s business.
“If a child is screaming because it is being beaten, they just close the door and the windows. They might make a complaint about noise. But the child is not their business, even if it is being beaten to death.
“They do what they want. It is a private matter. Everything is a private matter. That is how the white people live.”
Throughout this narrative runs a loud, angry reaction against the traditional woman’s imperative to endure passively whatever suffering is handed to her, to “wait” and “weep,” in the words of Nazneen’s female relatives. Contrasted with Nazneen’s immigrant struggles are the much sharper, more tangible hardships that her sister Hasina faces back in Dhaka. A physically beautiful girl who rejected the traditional type of marriage that Nazneen submitted to, Hasina seems determined to create her own fate.
Hasina’s Western-style attempt at romantic freedom, however, runs up against the traditional strictures of Bangladeshi society. Her story comes in a series of heartbreaking letters, in which she reports her tragic turns of fate in an eternally stoic voice. And Ali’s unsentimental, frequently comedic tone manages to keep this section from descending into melodrama. Both sisters are equally confined by their circumstances, by the traditions that silence women and constrict them within an oppressive system of honor and shame.
Certainly, in many ways this is a dark story, even a somber one, but the mood of the novel is redeemed by Nazneen’s ability to observe and to question events and people around her. She is under few illusions about the sort of man she married, gradually realizing that Chanu is essentially a self-absorbed pedant, a very sorry variety of loser in any language. In England, he suffers a classic sort of immigrant comedown, a shattering of great expectations, as he is incapable of the sort of stony-eyed pragmatism that his wife is trained in.
But Nazneen is living a different sort of story than her mother and aunts did. When she herself gives birth to daughters, there is the sense that now things will be different. While one of her daughters is meek and pliable, her older daughter, Shahana, is impressively fierce and independent-minded, full of her own will. She embodies the classic Westernized rebellious youth and she engages in a potent tug-of-war with her overbearing father. Chanu invents minute, torturous power games to assert his pre-eminence and subjugate his family–insisting that his daughters act as “page turners,” when he opens a book to read (they are required to intuit when the page must be turned). He lectures them pompously about the past grandeurs of Bangladesh, India and Muslims, but Shahana resists the dictates of the past, moving into her own as a daughter of both East and West.
Despite the deep currents of tragedy and sadness in the novel, there are lovely, articulate bursts of description and surprising scenes of magical insight as Nazneen transforms and develops. There are no easy or automatic breakthroughs; rather, the novel follows the subtle intricacies of emotional free play, the internal currency of what it is to be a human in any part of the world. The moments of revelation are quiet, yet no less stirring for that, as in a brief, lighthearted scene in which Nazneen tries on a pair of pants for the first time or in a delicate, exquisite description of a baby’s charm:
The baby was astonishing. He had little cloth ears, floppy as cats. The warmth of his round stomach could heat the world. His head smelled like a sacred flower. And his fists held mysterious, tiny balls of fluff from which he could not bear to be parted.
Oddly enough, it is just when Nazneen embarks on her truest and deepest personal rebellion that a lull arises in the narrative. The story becomes more discursive, abstract and less intimate, as Nazneen becomes entangled with a new man and his Islamic organization, the Bengal Tigers, a group that is trying to define itself both religiously and culturally, struggling to respond to local anti-Muslim sentiment as well as to world events like the attacks of September 11.
This is sensitive and important material, and Ali’s book makes some refreshing statements about the nature of racism, bigotry and contemporary religious chauvinism. But while the insertions of political and topical social critique are for the most part deftly handled, at times the narrative can seem agenda-heavy, larded with a few too many pronouncements and overly explicit speeches, information that feels only partially interwoven with the fabric of the story. A character’s statement, “And the government–it’s more scared of Islam than heroin,” strikes one as both thought-provoking and yet too heavy-handed for the fluidity of this story. Smaller, personal description gets diffuse; the characters’ ages and the passage of time seem neglected and elusive. Big Issues are drawn into the story in a way that threatens to overshadow the delicate interplay of characters and their private realities.
In the end, Nazneen’s story is brought to a dramatic crisis point, in which she must finally stop looking to her friends and family for direction and make her own way. And, while it’s a bit neat, the conclusion is also invigorating and affirming, a strong, final flourish that puts Nazneen in her proper place–as a woman making her way in the world, at the center of her own world.
Of course, I can’t help asking myself: What is wrong with having a so-called agenda? Isn’t there something impressive and mind-opening when an artistic work is able to convey real information about the actual world? As with many fine writers, Ali’s writing is marked with the urgency of an author speaking in critical times, a novelist who has something that she absolutely must tell us, that we absolutely need to hear. Her story is deepened and intensified by this urgency; the characters are marked by it. In this respect, it is very much a novel for our times, a voice emerging directly out of contemporary world experience.
That is not to distract from the considerable imagination and creativity of Brick Lane, but only to say that the two–information and artistry–don’t have to be mutually exclusive or incompatible. You may notice that some of these characters are angry or agitated about things that are happening right now in the world around us. Ali isn’t being terribly self-conscious, ironic or deeply self-referential about this material, and I have the feeling that ultimately this is because these issues really matter to this writer.
Brick Lane is a serious work in the best sense of the term. It has weight, purpose and passion. Exciting and timely, this novel gives us a slice of the world, contained within the sinuous contours of the particular, and in so doing, helps us find quietly private insights into noisy public affairs.