Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Brick Lane by Monica Ali (2003 Man Booker Shortlist)

It took me a long time to read Brick Lane and now it’s taken me weeks to write about it, too. If you haven’t read it, it’s worth the time (my slowness shouldn’t deter you): it’s a tough and tender novel with a great central character. Monica Ali’s book traces the life of Nazneen, a simple Bangladeshi village girl, whose family marries her off to an emigrant, living in the dispiriting tower flats outside of London. He is in his forties and everyone—including, at first, Nazneen—presumes him to be successful. He is not. The apartment seems to breed broken, flea market furniture and she rebels against her marriage with methods so subtle that her husband fails to notice. She, doesn’t, for example, match the creases on his trousers when she hangs them on the hanger, leaving them slightly mussed. There’s a nice and more complete review here, at niraj 2.0 (proud to be brown!—a nice slogan.)

I enjoyed the book. The last third, which takes place in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, is particularly wonderful. Nazneen is in her 30s and has lived in London—well, in her flat—she rarely leaves—since she was eighteen. Her girls are teenagers; her husband is broke and broken; she is sewing and, through that work, meets Karim, the man who delivers the sewing. Where her husband drones on and on about the lack of global appreciation for Tagore, Karim is ready to strike, to march, to fight for the rights of British Muslims.

This character, Karim, Monica Ali’s beauty, youth (she’s 37 or so), and status as a non-white Englishwoman has led to comparisons to Zadie Smith who, in White Teeth traces the radicalization of a young man, too. But reading Brick Lane is not like reading White Teeth or, for that matter, Andrea Levy’s Small Island. Ali is tender and interested in the slow emergence into consciousness of a single, humble woman; Levy is sophisticated, generous but a bit detached, and fascinated by the wartime setting of her book; Smith is hilarious, brazen, and interested in the bruises the world imposes on confident young people. The heart of Brick Lane is Nazneen and her letters home to her sister are intensely moving. Different, again, from Smith and Levy, Ali’s book is the story of a single character and unusual for that character being a wife and mother, a woman who does not, for many years, think of herself as an individual except in stolen moments. Smith and Levy’s pieces are really chamber works, looking at a small cluster of characters.

Putting that comparison to rest, then, we are left with a lovely, lovely book. It shares, nonetheless, a common problem: Ali seems to know no better what to do with the dreams of young men than anyone, from the men themselves to those politicians in Paris last month, They die in accidents at too-dangerous jobs, lose their dreams of assimilation to racism (Nazneen’s husband’s boss is Mr. Dalloway), or become radicals and leave the West behind (literally and philosophically). But Monica Ali does find great cause for hope for immigrant women: As Nazneen’s friend Razia assures her, “This is England…You can do whatever you like.”

Elsewhere, I first learned about blog carnivals from Dave over at WordMunger: someone collects the best of the blogs—generally or on a specific theme. It’s a great way to find out about blogs you might not otherwise hear of. When Black Looks returned from summer vacation, I caught her announcement of the carnival of feminists. The Happy Feminist is hosting this time, and she’s linked to my post on Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf! Thanks, Happy! The next carnival of feminists will be hosted by Scribbling Woman. You can submit your best feminist post to her by 12/17.

2 comments:

genevieve said...

Great review, Anne - that's going on my TBR list. Thanks for the link to the next feminist carnival - I'm looking forward to the link collection as I missed the last two.
Oh, and have a lovely Christmas and holiday season! Thanks for a great year's reading and writing.

Anne said...

You're welcome! Thanks for your blog & Merry Christmas to you, too.