Full of East End Promise
Ali's tale of British Asians,
Brick Lane, is painful and funny
By Monica Ali
Doubleday £12.99, pp289
Ali was famously voted one of Granta's Best of Young British
Novelists on the basis merely of the manuscript of this
novel. She had not then published a single word, but she
was one of only a couple of authors about whom the judges
were unanimously and wholeheartedly agreed.
Now that we have a chance to read it for ourselves, this
does not seem in the least surprising. Brick Lane has everything:
richly complex characters, a gripping story and an exploration
of a community that is so quintessentially British that
it has given us our national dish, but of which most of
us are entirely ignorant. Plus it's a meditation on fate
and free will. Oh and it's funny too. And painful.
Nazneen is sent from Bangladesh to Britain at the age of
18 to be married to Chanu, knowing only two words of English
- sorry and thank you - and not a soul. The most vivid image
of the marriage is of her cutting her husband's corns, a
task she seems required to perform with dreadful regularity.
Chanu is pompous and kindly, full of plans, none of which
ever come to fruition, and then of resentment at Ignorant
Types who don't promote him or understand his quotations
from Shakespeare or his Open University race, ethnicity
and class module.
He is a magnificent piece of characterisation, as is Nazneen:
a woman uneducated but perceptive, whose intelligence is
in danger of being smothered by her own ignorance and sense
of propriety. One of the questions of the novel is how much
of her subtlety will ever be allowed a voice.
Throughout the book, there is a persistent undertow of back
home. The characters are defined by being Bangladeshi years
after they have left; even, in the case of Karim, who erupts
into Nazneen's life when she should be a mature and settled
woman, when they have never even been there. The pull of
home, and the push of it, is dramatised by Hasina, Nazneen's
sister, who took her fate into her own hands and made a
love match, only to see the marriage fall apart and her
life spiral out of control.
Appalling things happen over the years. A baby dies, in
spite of his mother's determination to save him. Left without
the protection of a husband, Hasina is raped, then forced
to become a prostitute to survive. She has a friend whose
husband drenches her in acid, having already done the same
thing to a baby she would not give up for sale. More than
one woman kills herself because her husband beats and humiliates
her. Yet somehow the book is funny and full of hope. Hasina
recounts the terrible things that happen to her in letters
of ineffable sweetness, generosity and unintentional hilarity.
Nazneen could easily have been felled by loneliness and
the feeling she has that 'hope and despair are nothing against
the world and what it holds and what it holds for you'.
But although much of her life is an object lesson in passivity,
her character is honed by experience, grows less soft around
the edges and turns out to be full of courage.
In a sense, not much happens. Nazneen has an affair, shockingly,
even to herself. She, Chanu and their children, who are
English enough to demand to wash their hair in shampoo rather
than Fairy Liquid, have to decide whether to return to Bangladesh.
But the novel manages to take in a great swath of immigrant
experience, with its vivid minor characters, its scenes
of absurd local politics and its focus on individuals thrown
together, becoming families and trying to make their way.
Nothing is resolved in the end - Ali's characters are still
living as if their state were temporary - but a great deal
seems possible. This highly evolved, accomplished book is
a reminder of how exhilarating novels can be: it opened
up a world whose contours I could recognise, but which I
needed Monica Ali to make me understand.
By Geraldine Bedell