You know you are dealing with an acclaimed book when the critical
praise blurbs run to four pages at the beginning of the novel.
Monica Ali's BRICK LANE made it to no fewer than ten "Best of 2003"
lists, including a nod from the editors of the New York
Times Book Review. It won the 2003 Discover Award for Fiction
and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. All of which makes it
slightly intimidating to review. What if the emperor has no
Luckily for me and the rest of the book buying public, the emperor
is not only wearing clothes, it's an all-Prada outfit, complete
with a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos.
At the novel's outset, however, the protagonist, Nazneen, is about
as far from Prada and Manolo Blahnik has one could get. BRICK LANE
begins with her birth in what was at the time East Pakistan,
soon-to-be reborn as Bangladesh. Born into a small Muslim village,
a premature baby who wouldn't eat, Nazneen was Left To Her Fate.
Frequent retellings of the story dictated the capitalizations; her
Amma (mother) refused to take her to the hospital, leaving
Nazneen's life in God's hands.
Nazneen's fate becomes the central spoke of the novel as her
parents arrange a marriage to a much older Bangladeshi man and pack
her off, sight unseen, to London. Her husband, Chanu, who sees
Nazneen as an "unspoilt girl from the village," is himself a mass
of tics and insecurities, as full of puff and blather as he is
devoid of social graces. The walls of his flat are covered with his
framed certificates of achievement. "This one is from the Centre
for Meditation and Healing ... Here's one from the Writer's Bureau
... This is not actually a certificate ... it's just directions to
the school, but that's all they gave out." As is seemly in her
culture, Nazneen submits herself silently to his theories and his
many needs, including using a razor to slice the corns away from
his toes. Not surprisingly Nazneen spends time forcing herself to
accept this new way of life. "Every particle of skin on her body
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 her stomach."
As time passes and the two weather various crises, Nazneen learns
to view Chanu with a bit more acceptance. They have two daughters,
one of whom (Shanana) battles constantly with Chanu, mainly over
her assimilation into British culture. The other daughter, Bibi,
craves stability and acceptance. "It was like walking through a
field of snakes. Nazneen was worried at every step ... It was up to
her to balance the competing needs, to soothe here and urge there,
and push the day along to its close ... It took all her energy. It
took away longing." Adding to Nazneen's worries is the fact that
her sister Hasina still lives in Bangladesh, and Hasina's letters
present a life even harder than Nazneen's.
In an attempt to earn a little money, Nazneen agrees to take in
some sewing projects, turning out garments in a sweatshop-like
arrangement. Her projects are arranged by a young man, Karim, with
whom Nazneen launches into a torrid love affair. She moves outside
her passivity and forgets her fate. "It was as if the conflagration
of her bouts with Karim had cast a special light on everything, a
dawn light after a life lived in twilight. It was as if she had
been born deficient and only now been gifted the missing
Living in a post-9/11 world fills Chanu with conflict. He worries
simultaneously that his daughters are becoming too English and too
Muslim. His solution? Move back to Bangladesh. But can Nazneen
accept this as her fate?
Ali's characters are a study in subtlety. It is to her credit that
she can create such a vivid world with someone who rarely even
speaks as its centerpiece. It is a tight, compact story that adds a
new dimension to the immigrant experience, evoking the line they
all walk between two cultures, between fate and responsibility,
between duty and freedom. Nazneen, above all, understands
"Bibi always asked for stories. She wanted the words because the
words stitched her mother close."
"Tell us the one about How You Were Left To Your Fate."
"Not that one," groaned Shahana. "It's boring."
"True," said Nazneen. "I'll tell you a better one."
Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran on December 23, 2010