Brick Lane: A Novel
Monica Ali’s gorgeous first novel is the deeply moving story of one woman, Nazneen, born in a Bangladeshi village and transported to London at age eighteen to enter into an arranged marriage. Already hailed by the London Observer as “one of the most significant British novelists of her generation,” Ali has written a stunningly accomplished debut about one outsider’s quest to find her voice.
What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life. It was mantra, fettle, and challenge.
Nazneen’s inauspicious entry into the world, an apparent stillbirth on the hard mud floor of a village hut, imbues in her a sense of fatalism that she carries across continents when she is married off to Chanu, a man old enough to be her father. Nazneen moves to London and, for years, keeps house, cares for her husband, and bears children, just as a girl from the village is supposed to do. But gradually she is transformed by her experience, and begins to question whether fate controls her or whether she has a hand in her own destiny.
Motherhood is a catalyst—Nazneen’s daughters chafe against their father’s traditions and pride—and to her own amazement, Nazneen falls in love with a young man in the community. She discovers both the complexity that comes with free choice and the depth of her attachment to her husband, her daughters, and her new world.
While Nazneen journeys along her path of self-realization, her sister, Hasina, rushes headlong at her life, first making a “love marriage,” then fleeing her violent husband. Woven through the novel, Hasina’s letters from Dhaka recount a world of overwhelming adversity. Shaped, yet not bound, by their landscapes and memories, both sisters struggle to dream—and live—beyond the rules prescribed for them.
Vivid, profoundly humane, and beautifully rendered, Brick Lane captures a world at once unimaginable and achingly familiar. And it establishes Monica Ali as a thrilling new voice in fiction. As Kirkus Reviews said, “She is one of those dangerous writers who see everything.”
Wildly embraced by critics, readers, and contest judges (who put it on the short-list for the 2003 Man Booker Prize), Brick Lane is indeed a rare find: a book that lives up to its hype. Monica Ali’s debut novel chronicles the life of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi girl so sickly at birth that the midwife at first declares her stillborn. At 18 her parents arrange a marriage to Chanu, a Bengali immigrant living in England. Although Chanu—who’s twice Nazneen’s age—turns out to be a foolish blowhard who “had a face like a frog,” Nazneen accepts her fate, which seems to be the main life lesson taught by the women in her family. “If God wanted us to ask questions,” her mother tells her, “he would have made us men.” Over the next decade-and-a-half Nazneen grows into a strong, confident woman who doesn’t defy fate so much as bend it to her will. The great delight to be had in Brick Lane lies with Ali’s characters, from Chanu the kindly fool to Mrs. Islam the elderly loan shark to Karim the political rabblerouser, all living in a hothouse of Bengali immigrants. Brick Lane combines the wide scope of a social novel about the struggles of Islamic immigrants in pre- and post-9/11 England with the intimate story of Nazneen, one of the more memorable heroines to come along in a long time. If Dickens or Trollope were loosed upon contemporary London, this is exactly the sort of novel they would cook up. —Claire Dederer
Barnes and Noble
A captivating read from a debut novelist, Brick Lane brings the immigrant milieu of East London to vibrant life. With great poignancy, Ali illuminates a foreign world; her well-developed characters pull readers along on a deeply psychological, almost spiritual journey. Through the eyes of two Bangladeshi sisters—the plain Nazneen and the prettier Hasina—we see the divergent paths of the contemporary descendants of an ancient culture. Hasina elopes to a “love marriage,” and young Nazneen, in an arranged marriage, is pledged to a much older man living in London.
Ali’s skillful narrative focuses on Nazneen’s stifling life with her ineffectual husband, who keeps her imprisoned in a city housing project filled with immigrants in varying degrees of assimilation. But Ali reveals a bittersweet tension between the “two kinds of love” Nazneen and her sister experience—that which begins full and overflowing, only to slowly dissipate, and another which emerges like a surprise, growing unexpectedly over years of faithful commitment. Both of these loves have their own pitfalls: Hasina’s passionate romance crumbles into domestic violence, and Nazneen’s marriage never quite reaches a state of wedded bliss.
Though comparisons have drawn between Ali and Zadie Smith, a better comparison might be made between this talented newcomer and the work of Amy Tan, who so deftly portrays the immigrant experience with empathy and joy. (Fall 2003 Selection)