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Monica Ali has inaugurated what I hope will be a long and fruitful career as a novelist with Brick Lane (Doubleday, 2003). A best-seller in England, where it appeared at the beginning of the summer, it is currently doing well at Amazon (ranked 280 as of this writing). So much for the appeal of sheer success, which may or may not owe to the Ms Ali's extremely good writing, fully-realized characters, and command of the English idiom of satire.
Without these advantages, the story of Brick Lane would not be particularly attractive. Nazneen, its heroine, born in Bangladesh and married off at eighteen to Chanu, a forty year-old émigré, lives in a cramped, almost sordid council flat in East London, and hardly ever leaves its immediate neighborhood, which is nicknamed after the eponymous street. Of Chanu it must be said that he is a stranger to worldly success, and his lack of means combines with the couple's adherence to native customs to erect an impervious pane between Nazneen and the city in which she finds herself. She can observe the world around her, but she can't participate in it, and the two phases of Nazneen's life are rendered in distinct tones of voice. The quality of Nazneen's memories of the Bengal countryside have a folk-tale quality, and almost invariably turn on some mysterious, inexplicable fact of life. Of the exorcism of a demon inhabiting Nazneen's mother, Ms Ali writes, "How it happened was a mystery, and it was not a mystery to be solved but merely treasured." There is little to treasure in East London, and the narrative reflects a flat futility that would be unbearable if Nazneen were not infected by a reflective virus that induces her to ask increasingly bold questions.
Filled as it is with good writing and sharp observation, Nazneen's story is more than a little threadbare. She misses her younger sister, Hasina, terribly. Her first child, a boy, dies of fever in infancy. The daughter who follows persistently offends her parents' sense of decorum, and in particular rebels against Chanu's plans to return his family to Dhaka. A second daughter is sweeter but no less grounded in alien England. Of the other Bangla women in her circle, Nazneen has only one true friend, the mannish Razia, but even with Razia confidences must be oblique. As for Chanu, a physically unprepossessing specimen to whose corns and nasal hair Nazneen regularly ministers, he is no companion at all, for it never occurs to him that there might be anything personally distinctive in Nazneen's virtues. He forbids her to study English, and discourages her friendship with Razia. He permits Nazneen to sew piecework, at home, only when his own persistent unemployment forces him to do so - "The small edifice of their savings was reduced to dust." Chanu purchases Nazneen's sewing machine, and a used computer as well, with money borrowed from the hypochondriacal Mrs Islam, a loan shark who marinates her demands for infinite repayment in aggrieved respectability. Nazneen is a sitting duck for romance.
When it comes, however, romance is an episode, not a life-changing force. It propels Nazneen a little faster along the road to self-realization, but at no small risk. She is snubbed when the visits of Karim, her lover, inevitably become common knowledge, and it is no consolation that her husband, busy with his plans for repatriation, seems to insist on not knowing what even he must be aware of. Nazneen, moreover, is a religious woman, and the oppressive weight of her sin brings on a nervous breakdown. It is not this, however, that puts an end to her affair.
To say that 'the events of 9/11' constitute the crisis of Brick Lane might be off-putting to many prospective readers. But Ms Ali presents the infamous comble de misères from an unfamiliar angle. In the wake of the attacks - watched on television in the novel's one present-tense passage - it is apparent to Chanu that Muslims will be even more unwelcome in England than they have been, and he not only resolves to return to Bangladesh but actually implements a program of savings that enables him to buy the airline tickets. As the departure date approaches, Nazneen's inability to see herself in a country that, thanks to her sister's letters (strewn throughout the novel and written in a charming, if artistically questionable, pidgin), she knows to be quite different from the one she grew up in intensifies, and culminates in a pair of decisions, to remain in Brick Lane with her daughters and to foreclose any future with Karim.
'It would be too difficult,' said Nazneen, 'for us to be together. So I think we had better stop now.'
Karim began to say 'right' again, but caught himself. 'Yes, I see what you mean. With the children and everything.'
'I have to think of them first.'
To be sure, Nazneen foresees that her daughters, particularly the elder, already passing into puberty, will be repelled by their mother's relationship with a much younger (and very handsome) man. But the difficulties that she alludes to only begin there. She has already seen that marriage to Karim will be a trap. His response to 9/11 has been to assume Bengali attire and a matching religiosity. He may be great in bed, but he will almost certainly be as conventionally biased against feminine freedom as Chanu. She has grown tired of him in advance. In one of Ms Ali's most astute moves, Nazneen's epiphany occurs in the kitchen.
What if going home turned out to be just another one of Chanu's projects? A short while ago it seemed certain, but how could she be sure? She reminded herself: she had only to wait for everything to be revealed.
Instead of appeasing her as usual, this thought rankled. Why should she wait? She felt as strongly as if someone, standing beside her in the kitchen, had taken a piece of paper, written down the answers and then set alight to the page while she watched. She stood at the kitchen worktop making onion bhajis for the children, who would eat them smothered in tomato ketchup. In her frustration, she forgot she was in the middle of chopping chillies and rubbed her eye. Immediately a sensational pain exploded her eyeball. It was enough to make her cry out. She turned on the tap and twisted her head beneath it. To the curative powers of cold running water, the chilli-burn was immune. Nazneen gasped as the water ran up her nose.
She focused on the pain, rising up to meet it head on, boring into it, challenging it to do its worst. The burn was fierce and it unleashed in her an equal ferocity. Suddenly her entire being lit up with anger. I will decide what to do. I will say what happens to me. I will be the one. A charge ran through her body and she cried out again, this time out of sheer exhilaration.
As the rule in human development, excitement must be burned off before progress advances.
The pain subsided slowly. A shadow of pain remained long into the night. The exhilaration also drained away, leaving only its ghosts behind. What would she decide? What did she want?
That she asks the questions at all destines her to remain in England.
Chanu accepts her decision with good grace, and returns to Dhaka alone. He will remind readers of V. S. Naipaul's immortal Mr Biswas, whose constitutional perplexity he shares. But Chanu is not at all the striver that Mr Biswas is; his ambitions never bear fruit. He is an intellectual of sorts, but a Bangladeshi intellectual, no less in love with a somewhat distorted idea of his homeland's history than he is with Shakespeare. Looking down on almost everyone as 'ignorant types,' Chanu cannot hold a job for very long - until, that is, he hits on driving a taxi. (Even then, flurries of driving tickets eat away at his income.) In the following passage, he prepares to address a Muslim solidarity meeting.
The girls went off to school and Nazneen went with Chanu to the meeting. The preparations compelled her. Chanu donned his suit. It had a little white mark on the jacket collar which he rubbed with a flannel and turned into a bigger mark. The suit, dark blue serge, double-breasted, was old and the fabric had become a touch uncertain about the knees and elbows. But Chanu had lost weight since the return of his ulcer and the fit was not bad. He could get all of the buttons on the jacket done up, which had never before been possible. He put on a salmon-coloured tie belonging to his council days and slipped a packet of Rennies into his trouser pocket. From a folder marked 'Speech', he took an A4 Premier Collection refill pad and flicked open the cover. Holding the pad in one hand he made a sweeping gesture with the other and rocked on his heels. His lips moved but no words came out. After a while, he made a slight bow and closed the notebook. He cleared his throat. 'I think we're ready,'
In the event, of course, Chanu never has an opportunity to speak; the meeting has a dynamic that, clad in his respectable Western suit, he simply doesn't understand.
As the foregoing extract makes clear, Ms Ali has a lot of fun at Chanu's expense, but for all his pretensions he remains one of those characters whose lovability lies in inverse proportion to the likelihood of our meeting them. He is a good man, and his goodness provides Brick Lane - and, indirectly, Nazneen - with grounds for hope in a better world somewhere. That he and his wife should ultimately disagree about the likely location of that better world is not an occasion for sadness, not in this novel, anyway. Bleak as grubby Brick Lane might be, Brick Lane glows with affirmation, even triumph. (October 2003)
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