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There is already four reviews of this book on Ciao and at least two of them are remarkable and worth reading. Why then am I bothering? The fact that I am bothering at all shows probably how rich the novel I am writing about is, and how everybody can pull out something to ponder on from it.
The main reason I am bothering though is that it is simply a lovely book and a delight to read. I believe that everybody from fairly sophisticated reader looking for intellectual stimulation to a casual consumer of so called 'female fiction' read purely for fun would be able to read and enjoy this novel.
To start with, let's get the synopsis out of the way. The book tells the story of Nazneen, apparently stillborn in Bangladesh village in 1967 up to 2001 when she is a 34 year old mother, wife, lover and worker in London. Is that it? Yes, more or less that is it.
The story of Nazneen's life is told exclusively from her own perspective. We don't get ANY authorial comment, any insight into somebody else's mind, we don't look at the world through anybody else's eyes. What is not felt, thought or seen by Nazneen remains unsaid. There is a series of interludes, provided by touching, passionate (and hardly literate) letters from Nazneen's sister Hasima who is battling with life in Bangladesh. To me these letters just serve as a counterpoint to Nazneen's story as well as being part of it - after all she loves her sister, worries about her and sends her money form her own meagre earnings.
I do have a qualm with the letters though and that is that to me they seem like written by a foreigner learning English, rather than an uneducated person's attempts at writing in her native's tongue. But Hasima is writing in Bengali, not in English, isn't she? She should not sound as a foreigner, she should sound as a half-literate peasant... so this tool did not work for me.
Everything else is described in the third person, a classic narrative device of what can be called a psychological novel and it works well here as Ali's considerable penmanship can be employed to describe Nazneen's thoughts and feelings without appearing
falsely sophisticated which would happen if the narration was executed in the first person.
So, what did I find in 'Brick Lane'?
Firstly, on of its themes seems to me to be alienation, not in some deeply philosophical sense, but fairly expected kind of alienation, the one that is affecting an 18 year old village girl from Bangladesh, stuck in a Tower-Hamlets high-rise with no English, no connection to the city outside, in fact being vaguely forbidden to go outside the estate. She lives in London but she neither knows or desires to see any of the sights. She is not part of it. The title 'Brick Lane' describes the extent of her world and an accidental venture outside leaves Nazneen with a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment.
But also alienation, perhaps more difficult to grasp, of seemingly more adjusted members of the Bangladeshi community. The most clear exponent of that theme is to me Chanu - Nazneen's husband. We only see him through Nazneen's eyes and she generally does not delve deeper under Chanu's surface - so we can hear his patronising, self-assured speeches and lectures, we can observe his rather hideous exterior, we can see what he does and what he doesn't do. We develop understanding and maybe even a little bit of love for him but essentially stay annoyed. By inference we can also see what is happening to him in the real, the outside world. You see, I feel that Chanu has been treated quite badly by other reviewers so I am going to tell you a bit more about him.
Chanu, whom we met as he marries 18-year old Nazneen in his late thirties, is - in his own words - an educated man. He has a degree from Dhaka University and also bizarre collection of certificates and diplomas (and even directions to the college which was the only thing supplied with one of the courses) acquired in Britain gracing his wall. We don't know anything about his degree, but overall he does seem to be a fairly literate person. He quotes from Bengali as well as English texts and at least some of his utterances suggest that he understands what he is talking about. Why, then, is he such a pathetic figure? Why does he seem like a bumbling idiot? Why his speeches and rants remain just that - speeches and rants? Is it just because he is like so many stuck-up fathers and husbands? Is it because he doesn't listen and doesn't want to hear? Well, yes, that is probably true. But also because he is so hopelessly inadequate. His expectations and responses do not fit the situation. He doesn't move up in the world - he moves down. From being a council clerk eagerly expecting promotion he descend to being a mini-cab driver. His countless projects, ventures and ambitions lead to nothing. Is he simply stupid and incompetent, or is it his essential misunderstanding of the way things work, despite living in Britain for several decades?
Another theme, or rather a meta-theme of the novel is of course the one of immigration. Ali's characters come exclusively from the Bangladeshi community (this is, by the way, another feature that makes the subjects of alienation and isolation so pervasive) and the picture of this community and culture is a fascinationg one to ignorant onlookers whose experience of is limited to few curries in Brick Lane. But she also says some things relevant to all immigrants and one of them, which is perhaps often missed or ignored by the British readers has to do with 'Going Home Syndrome'. It is not surprising that it is ignored, as it is difficult to actually believe that somebody might even think of leaving the relative security and comforts of - even - Tower Hamlets - for what can be often perceived as the unspeakable squalor and deprivation of Bangladesh. Also, the "perceptual scheme" of immigration is I believe one of the white settlers going to America, to start a new life.
This syndrome can be seen as actually responsible for causing a lot of the mental alienation of even the educated and free members of the community. If you are going to go back - one day - then there is no point in getting to know your host country too well, is there?
The last thing that struck me in "Brick Lane" was the quality of the description of the sexual - initial denial, first stirrings, development of desire, and then fulfilment. These constitute one of the most difficult tasks to tackle for a writer of psychological novel, as it is so easy to tumble towards embarrassing, faintly (or terribly!) ridiculous, over-flowery and poetic or bordering on pornographic (call me controversial but this is for me the yet most bearable direction of the slip). Monica Ali's rendition of sexual emotions was - for me - flawless and beautiful and this is no mean feat.
On the personal, psychological plane Brick Lane is essentially a coming of age story, a bildungsroman extended for 34 years of Nazneen's life. She has to exorcise the ghost of her mother, she has to deal with the Muslim fatalism (listen: "... happiness, for instance. That would count against her. Because fate must be met with indifference.... ") and with her lack of knowledge of language and culture in Britain.
Eventually the link and the motivation to grow up is provided by her love for her daughters and by the experience of sexual awakening in the arms of her lover Karim. He is essentially a tool, not that Nazneen uses him in the exploitative sense, but she - methaphorically - grows up with him and eventually grows up out of him. The body becomes a channel, a key to the social, to the spiritual. Nazneen's anxiety subsides and she becomes more confident, more happy, more of her own person; all this despite believing that she is committing a sin for which the punishment is eternal suffering. Of course her growing up is our western kind of growing up; is individuation out of the realm of family and culture.
It is not perhaps a book that will stay with you for along time and in that sense it is more a poolside reading than something to study or ponder.
Monica Ali writing is natural, like a bird singing rather than with some great artistic deliberation, but it is a lovely and moving book nevertheless and if you have not read it, please do.
The lenght might discourage (at over 400 pages it is not a short novel) but it can be read leisurely and as it is not very demanding read, it doesn't take that long.