Review published on April 1, 2016.
When reflecting on books which have made a lasting impression on me in the past fifteen years, Monica Ali’s first novel very quickly sprang to mind. Her fresh new voice provided a vividly evocative portrait of a Bangladeshi community in London’s East End. She explored, with great sensitivity, and at times considerable humour, many of the conflicts immigrants face as they attempt to retain cultural and religious integrity whilst endeavouring to fit into their host community.
The main character in this engaging story is Nanzeen who, aged eighteen and still living in a small village in Bangladesh, is sent to England by her father who has arranged her marriage. Her husband to be is Chanu, a man who is twenty years her senior. With a sensitive eye for detail the author takes the reader on Nanzeen’s journey as she gradually develops from a shy, naïve, unconfident, passive girl who speaks no English, to a strong, confident woman who, through her struggles to combine her marriage, her traditional way of life, and living in an immigrant community, finally feels able to take control of her own destiny. This process includes a passionate affair with Karim, a radical young Muslim who is facing his own struggles about his beliefs and loyalties.
All the characters are very vividly portrayed, with each having a clear voice which demands to be heard. Chanu, who could so easily have been portrayed just as a figure of fun, with his huge belly, his worthless certificates and his troublesome corns, is sympathetically shown to have his own dreams and disappointments. There was never any feeling for me that any of the characters was superfluous to the story; each added to a richly multi-layered depiction of a community in flux.
Just a few of the issues explored throughout the story include arranged versus love marriages; conflicts faced by the children of immigrants as a result of being exposed to the different values, customs and expectations of the host community; racial and religious tensions; gang warfare; conditions for those living in poor, run-down areas and the problems arising from the lack of political will or action to improve the situation.
This is a novel, which captured my imagination from beginning to end, is full of despair, hope, pathos, humour and incisive insights. The issues surrounding what it feels like to be an immigrant, to feel not fully at home in either culture, to live in a community which views you with suspicion, feel as relevant today as they did when the book was written – maybe especially so for British Muslims. The author’s deceptively light tone and comic touch never detract from the serious elements she explores throughout the story and, on this re-reading, I found that it felt as fresh as it did when I first read it in 2003. For this reason, if for no other, I think Brick Lane should be regarded as one of the best books of the 21st century. Although she has written other novels, Alentajo Blue (2006), In the Kitchen (2009) and Untold Story (2011), these have never attracted the same critical acclaim.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Doubleday hbk 2003
Also a Recommended Read in nb21 May 2004
BB21C: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese