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Monica Ali: Brick Lane

This book had a huge success when first released. Ali made Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2003 list on the strength of this one novel. While it is indeed a very fine novel, I am not convinced that it is as good as it is made out to be. They key story is how a Bangladeshi woman, given up for dead soon after birth, and then subjected to all the social, political, racial and religious pressures, in the Bangladeshi community both in Bangladesh and Britain as well as in the broader British community till she finally, to use her own words, knows what she can do.

Nazneen is born in what was then East Pakistan in 1967. However, she won’t feed. The midwife assumes she is dead and plans are made for her funeral but she suddenly starts feeding and survives. At age eighteen, she is married off to a forty year old man, Chanu, who takes her back to Tower Hamlets in London. Chanu, by Bangladeshi standards, is a good husband, in that he does not beat her. However, she is not given the opportunity to learn English. She has to serve him and has limited social contact. Chanu works for the local council and is expecting a promotion (which, of course, will never come). He is pompous and has a naïve faith that the various certificates he will accrue will mean something to the British. He believes himself educated because he can quote Shakespeare and other English writers. Nazneen has a son who later dies from an illness and then has two daughters. The daughters, particularly the oldest ones, naturally do not fit it in with what Chanu considers Bangladeshi ways. Chanu himself has inflated ideas about himself and leaves his job when he does not get his promotion. However, his subsequent money-making ideas fall flat and he ends up borrowing money from the local money-lender at extortionate rates, unbeknown to his wife. He finally gets a job as a minicab driver.

Meanwhile, Nazneen is slowly developing. She learns some English, primarily with the help of her friend, Razia. She falls in love with Karim, the young man who brings her sewing work and they have an affair, about which Nazneen feels very guilty. Karim is also the organiser of the Bengal Tigers, a group of Muslims (primarily though not exclusively Bangladeshis), set up to counter the racism they find on the estate and Nazneen becomes peripherally involved. Chanu, meanwhile, is keen to go back to Dhaka with his family, though neither his wife nor his daughters share his enthusiasm, though they do not tell him. We also follow, through letters from Dhaka, the story of Nazneen’s sister, Hasina, who ran off with her lover, married him and then later left him and struggles to find a life of happiness for herself in a country where a woman on her own is not generally welcome.

Ali’s skill is to show how Nazneen gradually develops from being a thoroughly dependent woman to one who can think and act for herself. She certainly struggles with her various roles – as a wife, a mother and a Muslim. She is continually beset by doubts. But she does, finally, make the decisions that reflect her welfare rather than that of her husband’s. He, however, barely evolves. It s not that he is a bad man. It is just that he is not a particularly good one and thinks primarily of himself and his culture rather than of the welfare of his wife and daughters. It is a good story and Ali does expose the racism and sexism that many women face and that certainly is a good thing.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Doubleday