Brick Lane - reviewed by Poonam Srivastava
"Brick Lane"by Monica Ali Ali's first novel journeys into the land of Oz review and critique by Poonam Srivastava
Brick Lane is a phenomenon.It is the first novel of an unpublished writer, Monica Ali, and it had been short listed for the 2003 Booker Prize, and propelled Ali onto the once-a-decade Granta list of the 20 best young British writers Monica Ali has been compared to Zadie Smith, of White Teeth.When one actually sits down to read the book, then, it is hard to silence the fan fare and let the writing speak for itself.The book does speak for itself. It speaks volumes, not only as to the world created by Brick Lane, but also to the commercial world of book publishing. Brick Lane is in many ways a simple book. The book begins with a hot grab, a nut, or kernel that one can sink one's teeth in. The protagonist is born seemingly dead and left to her fate, miraculously lives on. She is Nazneen, the daughter of a prominent man of a Bangladeshi village. Nazneen grows up a simple child, plain and obedient and we sense a rather carefree and happy childhood despite an adulterous father and a mother who dies in somewhat uncertain circumstances. Her sister Hasina is the mirror image of Nazneen. Born two years later, Hasina is beautiful and pays not even lip service to the power of fate. It is Hasina that propels both sisters out of their rather comfortable childhoods and into their respective marriages, when she elopes with the nephew of the sawmill owner. Hasina finds herself in Dhaka, with her love match. Nazneen accepts the arraignment her father has made for her to marry a man, twice her age, in London. From the beginning of the book we sense the importance of this sibling relationship and it is a connection that lasts and grows through to the end of the book. Brick Lane, though its focus is first and foremost the life of Nazneen at Tower Hamlets, and the Bangladeshi-English world that she inhabits, is also the story of a coming of age. We are handed the very map of the journey we will be taking on page 4:
What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle rules her life. It was mantra, fettle, and challenge. So that at the age of thirty-four, after she had given birth to three children and had one taken away‚ when for the first time she could not wait for the future to be revealed but had to make it for herself, she was as startled by her own agency as an infant who waves a clenched fist and strikes itself upon the eye.
Where do we go from there? We go into Brick Lane. We go brick by brick. The journey of a young woman's acceptance of her fate and discovery of a new world, and eventually her own agency. Monica Ali is a gifted writer for one that is so new to the craft. She gives a great sense of place. The reader senses the entrapment into the inside world of apartments both Nazneen and Hasina find themselves in versus the open fields and large skies of their childhood village lives. Steadily she, and we, one step at a time, are introduced to the people that inhabit Nazneen's world-- like a camera lens widening. Chanu, the new husband fills their apartments with furniture as he fills their time together with long monologues and is shown to be likeable and gentle if rather an annoyingly pompous ne'er do well. There is the Tattoo-lady that lives in an apartment across the way. "Nazneen waved at the tattoo lady. The tattoo lady was always there when Nazneen looked out across the dead grass and broken paving stones to the block opposite. Most of the flats, which enclosed three sides of a square, had net curtains, and the life behind was all shapes and shadows. But the tattoo lady had no curtains at all. Morning and afternoon she sat with her big thighs spilling over the sides of her chair, tipping forward to drop ash in a bowl, tipping back to slug from her can. She drank now, and tossed the can out of the window."
Then, as the months and years roll slowly along and Nazneen plays "dutiful wife" we are introduced to the Bangladeshi community of working class London. Dr. Azad is my favorite character. Through the book we really come to know him as a truly multi-dimensional man who juggles his many and often conflicting needs in a truly noble manner. There is Razia with her overworking husband always at one of his many jobs and her children bickering in the hallways that connect the apartments. There is the colorful Mrs. Islam, who Chanu approves of as a respectable woman. Yet life goes on in tedium for our heroine as she clips toe nails, nose hairs, and other edges off her ever growing husband, and tries to entertain her friends without stepping out of the bounds of being a good wife. Nazneen finds escape only in her dreams and in the letters from her sister, until, the baby comes. Nazneen and Chanu have been more than just flat mates all this time, though of their intimacy we know little. With the pregnancy however, Nazneen feels the flicker of that agency that was alluded to earlier. She goes exploring, gets lost and finds her way home. She dares to think out loud that Chanu is really a beastly man. She dares to refuse to Mrs. Islam her request of taking little Raquib for an afternoon. No small steps for a woman who accepts all fate dishes out.
Raquib dies. It is here that this reader felt particularly betrayed. From this rather detailed and linear tale, where we plod obediently behind Nazneen as she begins to step more surely onto Brick Lane and into herself; from 1985 to 1988 in 102 pages and six chapters; from quiet Nazneen to the glorious powerful mother we are flung into a chapter of 23 pages of Hasina's letters that take us from May 1988 to January 2001. The letters take us out of Nazneen's world completely. They reveal Hasina's spirit. She is truly a spunky woman. She is a woman who follows her heart and pays the price that she must. We get this i n bits and pieces for the letters are written horrendeously in what is supposedly Hasina's voice, a broken English. It's truly unforgivable that we are left to piece together Hasina's fortunes and misfortunes from these letters.
These letters have already appeared in the text and onewas able to scan them cursorly to get on to the next readable bit about Nazneen. Not only is the English unreadable; it makes no sense. As a former teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages with adult learners from Bangladesh as my students, I don't understand why no one caught this. The language is not true to Bangladeshi speakers who attempt English. The word order is completely inconsistent. Why would a woman educated in a small village in Bangladesh write to her sister in any kind of English, anyway? Even if the author was convinced of this authenticity, to include a whole chapter of illegible letters directly after the death of a baby smashes the reader's confidence much like a self inflicted punch tosaid reader's face.
After thes 23 pages, the book continues to introduce us to vivid scenes and the smells and sights of London in "Little Bangladesh" and wonderful characters in the years 2001 and on. Ali through out the book gives a very human and kindred image of Islam, of the Qu'ran. She tackles the very difficult moment for the Muslim community after 9-11. Yet despite the very brave effort to step into such territory, the characters fall flat from having no where to go. We get introduced to a generation of Bangladeshi-English youth that would be Razia's children, just a few years older than Nazneen's children. Yet we have no real attachment for any, nor do we see their motivation, how they live their London lives. We see the clichéd struggle of the "Going Home Syndrome" and the ultimate agency that our heroine Nazneen can muster is to have an affair with a young "revolutionary" who she neither understands nor believably enjoys.
This might be the perfect illustration of the difference between story and plot. This is story, narrative. Things happen and then other things happen. This happen this way to this person who does this or that. There is no"build up".Ther e is not even a hint of a "why" to go with all of the "this" and "that". Without the"why" the book falls flat on the proverbial brick path. Readers need some sense of"why." The "why" does not have to be fully answered, or a compact O Henry-esque neatly tied bow on a box. It has to hover somewhere between the protagonist's relationship to her people and her world, between the howling isolation of the first pages and the flock of fleeting companion skates on ice. Brick Lane fails with the"why" or the plotfor most characters. Especially with Chanu. Chanu is a man who lives for his "appearance" and then he just leaves his family behind like so much furniture to journey "home." Also, Nazneen has a relationship that is very personal with her religion and her Qu'ran and yet walks into her adultery and out as if she is crossing the dead grass between the buildings of Tower Hamlets. Where's the passion, the struggle, the joy?
Ali has a good book in Brick Lane, but she shortchanges us and the book by taking it out of the oven too fast. There's a lot of clean up that needs to happen if this is really to be a book of the Bangladeshi-English experience, or of a woman immigrant to the Bangladeshi London scene, or of a character coming to own her own fate. The book has good characters. Though they are very reminiscent, almost too reminiscent, of Hanif Kureshi's fabulous characters, they do hold our interest and more important our desire to see them thrive or suffer. If Ali had just sat with this book a little while longer, (she is said to have shown the first few chapters and then finished it within months, with agent and publisher), it would have been the fabulous book the publishing industry is trumpeting today. Instead the reader is left wondering how that woman in a sari's daughters, who had been beaten with banana peels by their jolly old father, knew to get their mom to the rink of her dreams; and how Nazneen knew to keep them from going"home". I think these are justified demands of a reader.
This brings us to what the phenomenon of Brick Lane says about the commercialism. Multiculturalism is a hot sale in today's book industry. Yet that industry remains rather homogenous as to its decision makers. How could a book with such clichéd representation of Bangladeshi-English society/woman, such faults as the illegible letters of a main character, and absolute uneven writing be short listed for a Booker and find itself on the Granta? Is it perhaps that no one on Booker and Granta is from that community? Is it perhaps that "we" know we need to "mine" these new communities? Are we so in awe at the "native's" representation of self? Who is "we" and who is they? Certainly any writer has the absolute right to write about anything and anyone anywhere. So in our search for "authenticity" are we flailing about trying to judge, if not the book by the cover, the novel by the author's look?
Monica Ali and Brick Lane is the easy way out. For a writer that says she wants to be a writer first, and a woman writer or a coloured writer second or third, Ali has chosen the wrong path with Brick Lane. Bricks need to be baked a long time. For the time being, I will have to clump her with the Lahiris and the Naiers of the world, rather than the Kureshis, Chadhas, Divakarunis, Zadie Whites, Kingsolvers, Monk Kidds, the Markandayas, the Hanan al-Shaykhs, the Morrisons, et al.
Still, since we are so into cliches, lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. There was unmistakable talent in the writing. If the INDUSTRY would leave Monica Ali alone--she may actually write something truly unforgettable, next time.