Brick Lane was the work of a writer who seemed to have found, right at the beginning of her career and with absolute confidence, her own voice. Even if the voice was not always fully mature, that novel spoke to us in a tone that was humorous and humane, and managed to bring to life with marvellous precision a particular emotional journey in a particular milieu.
The only thing that holds the book together is its geographical unity. All the vignettes take place in Mamarrosa, a picturesque village in Portugal. It's the kind of peaceful place that makes the kids who live there long to get out and become au pairs in London, while it draws Londoners in pursuit of what looks like an easier life. An old peasant, a fat café-owner, a young Portuguese girl, a dissatisfied English tourist, an even more dissatisfied English writer - all these stock characters trot through the pretty village with its gorgeous colours. Looking at the blue sky, the English writer sees it as "a fine shade of nostalgia", while the Portuguese girl is oblivious to the cute picture she makes: "She wore her black sling backs and a white cotton dress with blue flowers that matched the paint that framed the door. Alentejo blue. There she was, in a picture, in a moment."
This sense of a character being framed and presented in a neat, pretty style is typical of this neat, pretty book. Each character gets a chapter to present their story, then they disappear; the last chapter is a big village gathering, in which the stories are shuffled together before the curtain comes down. If Ali were producing this book chapter by chapter for a creative writing course, you could imagine her tutors cooing over her ability to get characters so very smartly and quickly on to the page. For instance, she deftly pins down the young Portuguese girl who has decided to leave for London and wants to lose her virginity before she goes. "When she left for London it would be as a woman. Already the experience - though it had not happened yet - was emanating from her, oozing from every pore." There is something charmingly old-fashioned about this portrait of a young girl on the verge of sensual fulfilment, but with a gentle twist of modern let-down when the sensual awakening takes place: "She kept her eyes open the whole time, watching the bamboo ceiling and counting the insects that fell."
But given the expectations we already have of Ali, it's hard not to find this book a let-down. The most underwhelming parts occur when she tries to sum up such difficult, resistant characters as the old peasant in just a few pages, using stock images and drifting into the picturesque to cover up the absence of the particular. Here are "great plains
stretched out like a golden promise ... white villages stamped like foam on the blue" framing the kind of wondering that is too easy to impute to old peasants: "The cork oaks that had stood two hundred years, how much longer would they stand?"
Ali is much better when she gets closer to home, as with Stanton, the English writer who has come to the village looking for inspiration. He has the potential for independent life, as he sits at his computer longing to lose himself in his subject: "He set his jaw and willed himself submerged. It was hopeless. It was like deciding to commit suicide and trying to drown with your face in the washbasin." The situation looks promising when he hooks up with some of the livelier characters in the book, an eccentric English family who live in conditions of unimaginable squalor - the drunk father, the disappointed mother with her flea-bitten arms, the lonely son, the promiscuous, pregnant daughter.
When both mother and daughter start a relationship with Stanton we become submerged in the tale, but then, like Stanton himself, we find ourselves trying to drown in a washbasin again as Ali loses interest in this set of characters and wanders off to another subject. This time, we flick to the musings of the obese café-owner, who sits and eats cakes while mourning for his dead wife.
We do see Stanton and the mad English family again, but this time from the mother's point of view. With only 20 pages to sum up her life and situation, she rushes through her reading habits as a child, why she fell in love with her husband, and the differences between England and Portugal: "In England the council looks after the trees." By the time she has been accused and let off a charge for procuring an abortion for her daughter, you feel positively breathless.
It's not just the presence of more than one tourist in the book that makes you feel like a tourist when you're reading it. All the characters bow off too hurriedly, little sketches that never get fleshed out, people glimpsed from a train that is moving too quickly through a strange landscape. Even if you enjoy the ride, you can't help wishing that Monica Ali had chosen to write about somewhere she knew better, or wanted to know better.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
(R) thedailystar.net 2006