Book Review: Brick Lane, Monica Ali

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(Black Swan 2004 RRP 7.99)

I’ve always wanted to conquer my London aversion, and go and walk down Brick Lane. Gosh, that makes me sound quite the northern yokel, doesn’t it? I’m not talking about a full on phobia as such, I’m not scared of big cities, traffic or street crime, and I usually love the sense of anticipation that I get when I’m in the city, the feeling that anything could happen. My antipathy towards London is more of a vague feeling of disquiet when I step off the train at St Panaceas that I do not feel when I arrive in Paris, or New York. Of course, I read a lot of books about London, but nothing contemporary. I have often wondered if my feelings about London stem from a deep rooted disappointment that I am never greeted by hansom cabs or murky fog, or charming ragamuffin urchin children. Though, if I fast forward to the twentieth century, the London question is in some respects irrelevant to Brick Lane the novel, as central character Nazneen, the perfect girl from the village turned wife and mother, rarely strays beyond the confines of Tower Hamlets and Brick Lane. This is London through the eyes of the disconnected. Arriving Nazneen is completely marginalised by society, for being an immigrant, for being a woman, for not being able to ‘integrate’. The novel tells the story of Nazeen’s slow journey to awakening from teenage bride to mother, to lover, then simply to herself.

 So…all told, I am a little out of my comfort zone reviewing this book. I don’t like London, and I feel uncomfortable making judgements on a narrative of a way of life that is very different from my own. Yet, these are exactly the reasons why I chose to read this book in the first place. I like to read about people’s lives that are different from mine, as I suspect a lot of people do. The world would be very boring if we didn’t. I also like to stretch myself my in terms of what I read. Ok, that sounds weird. For some people, War and Peace is a stretch. For me, anything written after 1952.

Nazneen’s story is, to me, both tragic and empowering. Was it wrong of me to feel so desperately sorry for Nazneen for all her lost years, and for her unrelenting passivity in the face of her fate? Even the ending, and her choice to stay in London while her husband returned to Bangladesh, seemed to me scarcely triumphant enough. Then, maybe, I am guilty for putting my own expectations of life on a fictional character. And one thing that I have certainly learnt as I get older is that small triumphs can sometimes be the most satisfying. At the very end of the novel Nazneen is preparing to step on to an ice rink for the first time, bringing the book full circle back to her first days in London, which is quite lovely, if not overly convenient. It was difficult, however, to reconcile oneself with Nazneen’s passive acceptance of her lot in life. I expected much more of a dramatic flowering, but perhaps in the end the realisation was enough. And the realisation I experienced myself, that Nazneen, and thousands of girls like her, were not educated like me to believe that we can do anything. This is apparent in the difference between Nazneen and her daughters. They will not accept the arranged marriage and the life of domestic ignorance.

The flaw in the novel is perhaps that it is quite over long, with two much plot forced in. I do think this is a problem with a lot of novels though (err, hello Tolstoy. Oh hi there Trollope), and I didn’t really find it interfered with my overall enjoyment of the novel. There was just a critical little voice in my head nagging that maybe the plot could have been a little tighter and more fluid, but I ignored it.

Undoubtedly, the best element of the novel was the characters. As I began the book, I was prepared to hate Nazneen’s husband, an older, physically repulsive man, buying a young innocent girl from the village. Chanu is frustrating, and incredibly irritating, full of constant plans for self improvement and promotions at work, and contempt for the ‘ignorant types’. However, there are also times when he is kind and sensitive, and in the end it is impossible to hate him. Chanu is ultimately a tragic figure, who dreams big, but is forced to be satisfied with small rewards. He quotes from Shakespeare, and in the end that is all his much anticipated success amounts to, scraps and fragments.

I saw Nazneen’s lover, Karim, as similar to Chanu. Karim is young, attractive and hopeful, but when Nazneen looks at him she sees the failures in his life waiting to happen. One day he will wake up and his dreams will have proved to be as insubstantial as Chanu’s.

Nazneen’s wayward younger sister Hasina is another central character, though she is only visible through her letters home, and through Nazneen’s memories of her beauty. That beauty is Hasina’s meal-ticket and her curse, as she navigates life in Bangladesh after leaving her abusive husband. She is a factory worker, prostitute and maid, and her life is doubly harsh compared to Nazneen’s. Hasina values the stability that Nazneen rebels against, and considers Chanu a good husband because he does not beat his wife.

This is a book, like all the best novels, that blends tragedy and humour, as the story of Nazneen’s life is blended with Hasina’s. I couldn’t help thinking, despite the hardship she suffered, that Hasina was right to take fate into her own hands. So…anyway, I’m not sure how to end this review. I’ve had in my draft folder for almost a month now, making me feel guilty. I’m not sure if I’ve done a terribly good job of reviewing it at all really, especially after I went back and read Natasha Walter’s review in the Guardian. But I guess I’ll just leave you with a recommendation to read this book. It may not change your life, or even your perceptions, like the overly positive reviews on the cover claim, but it might give you something to think about, for a couple of days at least.

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