Brick Lane

by Monica Ali
ISBN: 0743243307

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A Simple Country Girl Bound in London
by Nancy Wigston

Monica Ali has made all the "A" lists of Best Young British Writers this year, kudos following the publication of her first novel, Brick Lane, a hearty broth of a tale that follows the gradual assimilation of a young village bride from Bangladesh into the harsh realities of life in modern London. Readers might be reminded of the rapturous reception that followed Zadie Smith's White Teeth a few years back, another look at Britain's new multicultural face. Whereas Smith had a delicious time sending up the lives of two unlikely mates, one Brit and one Muslim, their unions and their kids, writing in a satiric tradition that stretches back to Henry Fielding, Ali takes a more measured, Dickensian approach in her portrayal of the lives of London's immigrant Bangladeshis over the last twenty-odd years.
Brick Lane, her eponymous street in London's East End, has been a destination for newcomers to England for centuries. On adjacent Fournier Street, fleeing French Huguenots founded a church, which later became a synagogue, and is currently a mosque. But long months pass before young Nazneen, who was "born dead" on the floor of her parents' hut in rural Bangladesh, can overcome her timidity and lack of English to leave the apartment in Tower Hamlets she shares with her arranged- marriage spouse to venture on her own as far as Brick Lane. Fate resuscitated the infant Nazneen, and she has bowed to its force ever since. The good daughter, the subservient-though keenly observant-wife, Nazneen has always accepted the passive role thrust upon her by her mother. So the scene in which, propelled by dire news from home about her beautiful, rebellious younger sister, Hasina, she flees the confines of her flat is the first of the novel's quiet triumphs. Pregnant with her first child, her bladder asserts itself, but by now Nazneen is hopelessly lost in a forest of glass-fronted buildings. A man approaches, offering help first in Hindi, then Urdu, and finally in English. "Sorry," Nazneen manages, using up half of her entire English vocabulary. When he nods solemnly and takes his leave, we feel this young immigrant has achieved the initial stage of selfhood. She has spoken and she has been understood.
Nazneen's life in London, as she forges her new identity, resembles a series of determined baby steps. In contrast, her husband, Chanu, coasts steadily downward as the book progresses. Initially he seems little more than a comic blowhard, a man who displays his many certificates in frames on the wall, while dreaming loudly of the promotion that is due to him at the council office where he works. His ultimate goal is to return and live the lordly life in his native country. Immersed in a world of English literature that reflects a schoolboy's fantasy, Chanu is ill-suited to current realities. He has ordered and received a "simple village girl" as a bride, and is kind enough to her, while expecting she will perform wifely duties like bearing children and slicing the corns from his feet. Nazneen does both. Tragically their infant son dies, but two daughters follow, and Chanu proves a loving father.
Yet he is a powerless man, which becomes glaringly evident when the news of Hasina's flight from her abusive husband, her impulsive "love marriage", arrives. Nazneen, frantic with worry, wants him to go to Dhaka and find her sister. She listens as Chanu pontificates and delays. "Every particle on her skin prickled with something more physical than loathing...it was the same feeling she had when she used to swim in the pond and came up with a leech stuck to her leg or stomach." In a word, his young wife realizes her husband is useless. Yet Ali's great achievement is that she makes this bloated, self-pitying wreck a rounded character for whom we can't help feel some affection. "He started every new job with freshly spruced suit and a growing collection of pens...But he was slighted. By customers, by suppliers, by superiors and inferiors...There was in the world a great shortage of respect and Chanu was among the famished."
A great blamer, Chanu quits his job when the longed-for promotion fails to materialize. His only friend, Dr. Azad, who often comes to dinner, but because of his own disastrous home life, never invites Nazeen and Chanu to his own house, counterpoints Chanu's failure. Their friendship resembles a long jousting match where each scores points off the other. What Chanu has-a stable family life-Azad lacks, whereas Azad has the steady income Chanu is unable to achieve. Part of his chaotic attempt to achieve financial security exposes his family to the clutches of the nefarious Mrs. Islam, a wealthy widow and money lender, who arrives, gasping, with her vast bag of patent medicines, complaining of her health while charging usurious rates to desperate failures like Chanu. Mrs. Islam reads like an homage to Charles Dickens, a modern variation on that self-pitying destroyer, Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations. Except that Mrs. Islam visits with two enforcers, her dimwit sons.
As time passes, Nazneen changes from a shrewd, yet passive watcher of English life to a keen participant. Money is short. Karim arrives at her house with piece work for her to sew. This handsome, politically engag middleman for his father, who owns a clothing factory, arouses passion in her life for the first time. Their affair may be part of the reason we begin to pity her useless husband, although Chanu's corns, floppy stomach, and endless verbiage consistently mirror his shortcomings. Readers will grasp the similarities between husband and lover before Nazneen does; they are both blamers and dreamers, talkers whose ambitions will never bear fruit. As the housing estate moves into the politically charged present, with racist violence, hard drug use, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the fallout from the horrors of September 11th, Nazneen's own life-and the lives of her two, very credible, London-raised daughters-moves toward its private crisis as Chanu decides to act on his dream and take his family back to Bangladesh.
Throughout the novel the stream of letters from her sister-sometimes whole chapters in length-has kept us abreast of the reality of life in Dhaka, especially for a woman trying to make her way alone. These letters form a kind of complementary narrative. Set against the troubles of London life, we see the social conditions back home, where women are even more helpless to control their lives. Carefully larded with grammar errors, they still can seem rather too detailed and Clarissa-like in their novelish descriptions of the travails of Hasina's life, yet they work, along with Nazneen's vivid memories of her mother's life and her own childhood, to present a complete portrait of this woman, caught between present and past, old world and new. Despite all the flak taking place outside in the streets, this is a novel firmly set in interior spaces, both in London and in Dhaka. We become so familiar with Nazneen's flat that we could draw it from memory. Ali expertly manages to keep us in suspense about what is going to happen to the lives in that flat until almost the final page. Brick Lane fairly pulsates with vivid, finely drawn characters, caught in the swirling maelstrom of life as we are now compelled to live it.

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