BRICK LANE by Monica Ali
Reviewed by Janet Lan of Friday Morning Book Group .....take our poll!
(August 11, 2005) London’s Brick Lane, where once Jack the Ripper did his dirty deeds, is now where many immigrants from all over the world start their adaptation to English life and culture. It’s also where Monica Ali situates the Bangladeshi protagonists of her first novel.
The previously unknown author, Oxford-educated and the daughter of a Bangladeshi émigré, received a huge advance from both Doubleday and Scribner on the strength of her first 5 chapters. As if this were not enough, she was named on Granta’s once-a-decade list of best young British novelists, and the book had still not been published.
The resulting novel is a sensitive story about an arranged marriage between Chanu, a 40 year-old Bangladeshi and long-time Brick Lane resident, and Nazneen, a sweet 18 year-old from the Bangladesh countryside. Nazneen, who knows no English and has never lived in an urban environment, joins Chanu on a council estate, the British equivalent of public housing, which is jam-packed with immigrant families.
Chanu has spent years collecting certificates and degrees, trying unsuccessfully to establish himself financially and intellectually. His failure is presented both as funny and sad. One member of our book group found him unlovable and even repulsive, but most felt he was a kind man trying to provide for his family and impart his values on his wife and two daughters. Nazneen, is initially lost in her new world and submits to tradition and fate.
Nazneen’s development is slow but continuous. The theme of fate versus intervention plays out in her own life, starting with her birth, and in the lives of those around her, including her husband and her sister, whose letters from Bangladesh are a counterpoint to the Brick Lane parts of the story.
On the surface, the book is about the immigrant themes of coping with poverty, establishing a career, and facing different cultures, religions and racism. There is also an unlikely love affair and the inevitable culture clash between the partially anglicized children and their immigrant parents, including the problems of drugs. In addition, there is a marvelous description of the cruelties of Bangladeshi life in the form of upbeat letters from the protagonist's sister who remains in Bangladesh and suffers the consequences of a “love” marriage. Politics also are woven in, and we learn that the events of 9/11 are most disturbing to this Muslim family, who fear a backlash from their non-Muslim neighbors. The wonderful descriptions enable one to be enveloped in this claustrophobic environment with the only hope of escape for the characters being through their imagination and memory or by taking drastic steps, both emotional and physical.
Our group had a most lively discussion about arranged marriages and passionate versus slow-growing love. Some of us found the letters from the sister in Bangladesh hard to read as they were purposely written in poor English, perhaps to emphasize a lack of education. A few of us felt that the letters interrupted the flow of the main story. We also had some trouble following a subplot on gang warfare. We found fascinating the communication between Chanu and his wife, daughters and best friend. They seemed to understand each other remarkably well, even as their families were falling apart and despite the lack of open discussion. The final outcome is a face-saving solution for a gentle but most disappointed man, although some members felt the ending to be cruel.
Clearly the story does not really end with the last paragraph, and I am continuing to think about this family and how they would handle the rest of their lives. This is a wonderfully written, rich book about human development and relationships and worthy of the unusual positive attention it received prior to its publication.
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