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.
The most obvious difficulty for a novelist with so many main characters is sufficiently distinguishing one from the next. Some writers are ventriloquists, capable of mimicking many different voices–Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and David Mitchell come to mind–but Ali is an expert with gesture; even minor characters appear in attitudes that are particular and unforgettable. Dona Rosa Maria, the mortician’s daughter, “had an overbite and a way of holding her hands behind her back that made it look as if she were hiding something, a pancreas, perhaps, or a kidney.” And when Ruby Potts steals a pair of sunglasses from Vasco, the cafe owner, he is seen passing “a hand over the postcards, comics, chewing gum, toy guns, and sunglasses, perhaps to divine what else was missing, perhaps to comfort his remaining stock.” Ali’s language is unadorned, but these snapshots have a poetic compression–they are the pictures you wish you’d taken on vacation, rather than the ones you did.
Twenty-year-old Teresa, a Mamarrosa native, is Ali’s most dynamic character. When her chapter opens, she has a letter in her pocket offering her a job as an au pair in London. In Brick Lane Ali was concerned with the opposition between fate and free will: Nazneen, a devout Muslim, has repeatedly been told a story about how she almost died as an infant–“How You Were Left to Your Fate”–but lived. Once she is in London, Nazneen experiences an increasing (and increasingly conflicted) awareness of her power to determine her own destiny. In Alentejo Blue Ali continues to think about agency and the power to make choices; however, in this novel that power is more or less taken for granted. It is the characters’ freedom that paralyzes them, even in the moments when they believe they’re sure of what they want to do. In Vasco’s cafe Teresa sees Harry Stanton, an expatriate English novelist living in Mamarrosa: “Suddenly she was filled with rage. She drained the last of her beer. Don’t be so stupid, she told herself. You are going to London and he has come here. What is wrong with that?” There is, of course, something wrong with that, and Teresa recognizes it: Why should she go to London if British citizens are choosing to settle down in her hometown? If Teresa were the kind of girl who quoted lines of poetry (which, thankfully, she is not), she might have extended Ali’s epigraph: “And place is always and only place/And what is actual is actual only for one time/And only for one place.”
The novel opens with a suicide: João cuts the rope and lifts Rui–the love of his life, whom he’s held only once before–from a tree in the woods. Ali explores the relationship between these two men with empathy; their mutual attraction was and remains taboo in the social world of the Portuguese village. As she demonstrated in Brick Lane, she has an unusual ability to write convincingly from the point of view of someone much less educated than herself, and she is particularly perceptive about the way the various social distinctions of village society make themselves felt. Several chapters after Rui’s suicide, Teresa dutifully visits João in his one-room house and feels by comparison painfully sophisticated: “She almost envied his simple life. The headaches he had never known. The certainty of each day like the last. The protection of not wanting more.” Ali deftly communicates the irony that, of course, João’s complicated life was defined by “wanting more”–something that Teresa might have to leave Mamarrosa in order to understand.
Teresa sees João in the same way that the tourists see her. By juxtaposing their two perspectives, Ali asks what it is that makes us a local or a stranger in a certain place, and whether that difference is as absolute as is commonly believed. It’s the Pottses’ poignantly hopeful son, Jay, who puts the question best:
“Am I Portuguese now?” Jay asked once.
Chrissie didn’t look sure.
”Don’t be bleeding soft,” said China.
”‘Course you’re bleeding not.”
But Jay, who speaks Portuguese with a thick local accent, who loves the landscape and who not once in the course of the novel thinks of England, may be as Portuguese as any of the Mamarrosa natives. Whether that’s a good thing–a postcolonial correction for dangerous nationalisms–or a weakening of the regional character that keeps the world vital, Ali leaves for the reader to decide.
Alentejo Blue is at its best when it raises these questions lightly. Ali is especially talented with dialogue, and as her characters struggle to get through to one another, they reveal themselves to the reader. In one of the book’s finest moments, Stanton meets Jay walking in the woods:
“You’re English,” the boy said. Stanton had not noticed him approach.
”Hello, compatriot,” he said.The boy grew unsure. He beheaded flowers with his stick.
”We’re both English,” said Stanton.
The beautifully subtle growing boy decapitating flowers, and Stanton’s failed attempt to make a connection with Jay, give the moment its particular humor and its pathos. There are many similar conversations in the novel, indirect dialogue that shows how rare genuine communication really is. It’s to Ali’s credit that these misunderstandings happen as often between “compatriots” as they do between locals and foreigners.
Ali is most interested in the thematic points where these people–Portuguese, expatriate and tourist–intersect. In spite of the considerable differences among her narrators, she reflects through each of them on the nature of storytelling, the question of where a person belongs–in his or her birthplace, or as far as possible from that spot–and on the nature of choice. Vasco, who has been to America and never tires of discussing it, scorns his provincial neighbors “whose biggest decision has been whether to paint the door frame yellow or blue.” The characters’ musings on choice range from the philosophical (João notices that a bird “never has to think about what to do next”) to the absurd (Vasco wonders at great length whether or not to eat a piece of cake). When Chrissie is investigated by the local police for her role in her daughter’s abortion, she speculates that prison might not be all that bad: “All this business of what to do next, how to do it, when to do it, why you’re doing it. Well, they take that off you, don’t they?” Each of these individual moments rings true, but as they accrete the characters’ ideas begin to blend together. By the time Ali introduces Huw and Sophie, a young English couple spending a holiday in the Alentejo, their existential worries seem tiresome, dictated more by the novel than by their own, otherwise distinctly drawn personalities.
More satisfying than these thematic touchstones are the literal ways the characters intersect. Eileen, a third English tourist, sees a poster of Nelson Paulo Cavaco and is charmed; Teresa is bored by the singer, judging him overrated; Jay plays soccer with Cavaco’s son. Recurring motifs create a sestina-like effect: Pigs, for example, appear in several chapters, as do candles and the color blue. Teresa, who is planning to lose her virginity before she leaves for London, gets ready to meet her boyfriend: “She wore her black slingbacks and a white cotton dress with blue flowers that matched the paint that framed the door. Alentejo blue. There she was, in a picture, in a moment, setting out for the rest of her life.”
I can’t think of another novel with a structure exactly like that of Alentejo Blue. Each chapter has the duration of a short story, but the pace is expansive and novelistic, and the episodes don’t stand alone. Reading the novel is a little like hitchhiking through unfamiliar countryside: You become so involved in the driver’s story that you’re surprised each time one of the characters stops to let you off.
For that reason, the end of the novel poses a technical problem. The Alentejo is famous for its polyphonic choral groups, and the last chapter brings all the characters together to “sing” their separate parts in unison, each narrating a section. It is a promising conceit that ultimately disappoints: Ali excels at developing characters slowly, steeping them in richness and depth from the inside–not panning quickly across their faces. In João’s section, the old men of the village make a toast to their recently deceased friend, Rui. When João raises his glass, the gesture has a special bitterness; it gives his story an ending but leaves us wondering what happened to the middle. And Ali has to stretch to make the very premise of a reunion plausible: Eileen, the tourist who was visiting Mamarrosa in the summer, happens to be in town looking for a house just in time to attend the annual Mamarrosa festa with the other characters. A few times in the last chapter, Ali is reduced to using a kitschy, omniscient collective voice that sounds weak and unmoored: “Some minor complaints notwithstanding, it was generally agreed to be the best festa ever, something that was agreed every year.”
As the festa heats up, and more and more sparkling wine is consumed, the villagers start to demand an account of the newly returned Marco Afonso Rodrigues’s life. “A life is never simple,” Marco responds: “A story is never true.” Whether it’s Harry Stanton, who sleeps with Chrissie in order to write about her, or Teresa, who has a talent for observation that makes her a kind of potential writer, storytelling is one of Alentejo Blue‘s preoccupations. But when Teresa thinks of telling stories about Mamarrosa to her new English employers, she runs into a problem: “First, she’d have to explain about Vasco, tell them what he was like. And also Mamarrosa; you couldn’t understand unless you knew about this place.” A good story must do more than just describe a place, but it’s also true that writers fall in love with particular patches of ground. The best stories understand that a place is as complicated as the people in it: It can only be captured in flashes, which cease to exist as soon as they are written down.