Review

Alentejo Blue

by Monica Ali



ALENTEJO BLUE follows Monica Ali's highly acclaimed novel BRICK
LANE, which I picked up and read recently so I could compare these
two works. In both novels she displays her knack for description
and detail, and it's quite clear that she's a gifted writer.
However, while BRICK LANE seems to have problems with structure and
a meandering plot, it still shows off her talent for
characterization. The structure of the current novel is much
tighter but again showcases her gift for creating life-like
characters in such great detail that it's easy for the reader to
picture every nuance, every slight body movement of each character
featured.


While I warmed up to BRICK LANE right away, it took me longer to
get into ALENTEJO BLUE. Each chapter reads almost like a separate
short story, in which at first the reader will not see any
connection among the chapters, except for the fact that they take
place in the same tiny village of Mamarrosa in Portugal. Some of
the individuals are visitors on vacation, and others are
expatriates from Britain. For the most part, however, the villagers
are people whose families have lived in this part of the country
for generations. We get inside their heads, and Ali writes and
creates her characters without holding back. There are plenty of
expressive words scattered throughout, such as "farting" and
"snots."


What joins each chapter with the next is the mention of a man who
is expected to return home after many years of traveling. Marco is
the son they are all proud of, and they're waiting for his arrival
as if in anticipation of royalty or a big time international
celebrity.


In the meantime, life goes on and we learn about the little details
in the villagers' lives, including a family of British expatriates
who are in Portugal because they're running away from their
previous sordid lives. They live in poverty and are clearly quite
dysfunctional. They inadvertently get involved with another Brit, a
writer, who becomes involved sexually with the two women in the
family (mother and daughter) and one can imagine how that ends up.
Another interesting character details the story of a young woman
who is about to make a choice: whether to stay with her man in
Portugal or move away from the village to take a job as a nanny in
England. And there's the shop owner who learns he's about to get
competition from an Internet café; he spends his time seething
about the indignity of it all, feeling that change is not always
good.


What I found interesting was the overlap in each chapter; as we get
to know each character and slowly get the feel of the village, they
surface in other chapters. By the end of the book, when Marco
finally returns home, almost every villager will express their
opinions (or lack thereof) of this big event, and the reader
finally gets to meet this mysterious Marco who has been made into
some sort of hero. While the story of Marco is a loose thread that
weaves itself through each chapter, ending with a surprise
homecoming and disappointing a lot of people, the book ultimately
is a character study of the people who make up the village. Marco
is mentioned in each chapter and anticipating his return are
villagers whose pathetic existence is made even more so when
compared to the infamous Marco, who supposedly made his fortune by
leaving this small Portuguese town. Ali does a wonderful job
painting each of these lives, describing them with great detail so
the reader can imagine the smells, sounds and feel of living in
this village that seems to be stuck in time.


I recommend ALENTEJO BLUE for its descriptive writing and the
wonderful way Ali creates characters who jump out at the reader and
off the page. I anticipate her next novel and will be curious if
she chooses yet another country in which to set her story, as she
does a great job of absorbing a culture and letting the reader get
a small glimpse of it.


   












Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton (Ratmammy@lofton.org) on December 22, 2010

Alentejo Blue
by Monica Ali

  • Publication Date: June 5, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0743293045
  • ISBN-13: 9780743293044