by Monica Ali
Denouncing gender inequities in another culture, even when the author has roots in that culture, can be fraught with perils. Take for instance Alice Walker's novel Possessing the Secret of Joy -- her indictment of the practice of female circumcision. Some critics complained that instead of setting her story in a specific African culture she offered up a generalized depiction of "African" village life. In addition to tangling with critics, an author can find that skewering the traditions of the motherland is often seen by natives as an act of cultural imperialism, a grasp at unwarranted license, or an act of betrayal
In her first novel, Brick Lane, Monica Ali paints a moving and humorous picture of gender dynamics in Bangladeshi culture, and deftly evades such criticism by presenting a well nuanced portrayal of the lives of two sisters from the rural village Gouripur in Eastern Pakistan.
The eldest daughter, Nazneen, is pronounced a stillborn by the village midwife, Banesa -- a woman who claimed to be 120 years old and "was more desiccated than an old coconut." But Nazneen defies her pronouncement, emitting a yowl as she struggles to live. Banesa advises Rupban -- the tearful, pious mother -- not to take Nazneen to the hospital as she would have to sell her jewelry to pay the expense -- and besides, the old midwife says, fate will decide the outcome anyway. Rupban agrees, "...my child must not waste energy fighting against Fate. That way, she will be stronger."
As Nazneen grows into a young woman, Rupban constantly admonishes her to submit patiently to whatever god wills, reminding of her the tale of "How You Were Left to Your Fate". Taking the lesson to heart, Nazneen offers no complaint when her father arranges a marriage with a man twice her age, a government employee living in London.
Chanu is a supercilious man, though generally kind. He delights in acquiring a "totally unspoilt" village girl to bear his children, cook his meals and cut the corns off his feet. He insists she remain in the apartment -- unless visiting the "respectable" Bangladeshi women in the compound -- and won't let her enroll in an English language course. Nazneen suffers in isolation until the birth of her daughters.
Her eldest girl Shahana -- nicknamed memsahib by Chanu for her sharp-tongued rebellion -- sees her father as a fool and resents her mother's passive acceptance, delivering frequent kicks in her frustration. (Ali herself was born in Dhaka and raised in London, and quite possibly identifies with this character; this may account for the young girl's startling insights.) Shahana demands to know if her mother could have ever really loved a man as ridiculous as her father -- possibly "before he got so fat." When Nazneen says that she was lucky in marriage, Shahana replies: "You mean he doesn't beat you." Ali contrasts Nazneen's safe, if suffocating, life with the experiences of her younger sister Hasina, who runs away at sixteen for a love marriage, breaking all ties with her father. She eventually flees her husband as well, choosing the dangerous -- and ultimately dishonorable -- life of a single woman living and working in Dhaka over another beating at her husband's hands. Ali details Hasina's struggles through her letters to Nazneen, who longs to help but is afraid of revealing her sister's disgrace to Chanu.
When a handsome young dissident begins delivering piece work for Nazneen to sew, she finally begins to escape the stranglehold of respectable society, engaging in a torrid love affair. Panicked, torn between obligation and desire, Nazneen is forced to decide her fate for herself and is "startled by her own agency as an infant who waves a clenched fist and strikes itself upon the eye." (Ali's use of the feminist buzzword "agency" is further indication of her political leanings).
By the end of the novel, however, we see that Ali is actually quite evenhanded when it comes to her male characters. Blathering fool that he is, Chanu genuinely loves his wife, treating her with real tenderness -- and Nazneen is able to recognize that her husband has also struggled with his own limitations. When Chanu laments that he never became a "Big Man", Nazneen asks, "What is all this Big Man? Do you think that is why I love you? Is that what there is in you, to be loved?"
There, for all the temptation to read this novel as a purely political or cultural critique, lies the transcendent nature of Ali's work -- the characters are too human to be dissected so easily.