- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003


By Monica Ali

Scribner, $25, 369 pages


When Nazneen’s father “asked if she would like to see a photograph of the man she would marry the following month,” 18-year-old Nazneen shook her head and replied, “Abba, it is good that you have chosen my husband. I hope I can be a good wife … ”

Monica Ali’s first novel, “Brick Lane” is a portrait of two decades of Nazneen’s life as a dutiful Muslim wife and mother, married to a man “[a]t least forty years old [with] a face like a frog,” who takes her from her village in Bangladesh to the Muslim ghetto in London, a long journey not only in space and time, but in emotions and spiritual wellbeing. “You can spread your soul over a paddy field, you can whisper to a mango tree, you can feel the earth beneath your toes and know that this is the place, the place where it begins and ends. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks? The bricks will not be moved.”

Nazneen’s husband, Chanu, sees his young wife as “[n]ot beautiful, but not so ugly either. The face is broad, big forehead. Eyes are a bit too close together … Not tall. Not short … What’s more, she is a good worker. Cleaning and cooking and all that.” Chanu does not beat his wife, and in his own way, cherishes this “unspoilt girl … [f]rom the village.”

Meanwhile, Nazneen’s beautiful younger sister, Hasina, has run off and married a man she loved. When his beatings became unbearable, Hasina left him and went to Dhaka, where she moved in a downward spiral from one job to another, supporting herself as a prostitute until she found work in a respectable woman’s household taking care of the children. In broken English Hasina writes to Nazneen to tell her of her life.

Nazneen does not question her existence in London (“If God wanted us to ask questions, he would have made us men,” her mother had told her), despite the ugly desolation of her surroundings, the thin walls which do not mask the coughing, the flushing lavatories, family fights and television programs in the neighboring apartments — “Everyone in their boxes, counting their possessions.”

She is not happy, but neither is she unhappy, although sometimes she closed her eyes and “smelled the jasmine that grew close to the well, heard the chickens scratching in the hot earth, felt the sunlight that warmed her cheeks and made dancing patterns on her eyelids.”

She makes a few friends and is elated to discover she is pregnant.

The baby boy is his parents’ delight for a short span of time, until he sickens and dies. The two daughters Nazneen bears subsequently, Bibi and Shahana, are beloved, but are not substitutes. They grow up chafing at the limitations of their Bangladeshi existence, fighting with their father in an “eternal three-way torture of daughter-father-daughter. How they locked themselves apart at this very close distance. Bibi, silently seeking approval, always hungry. Chanu, quivering with his own needs, always offended. Shahana, simmering in — worst of all things — perpetual embarrassment, implacably angry.”

Chanu is a dreamer, a perpetual student and a failure. He finds work, loses it, blames others and continues to study. He finances various purchases and programs by borrowing money from Mrs. Islam, an evil old woman who extorts huge sums of interest from the “friends” to whom she lends money. He dreams of returning to Bangladesh one day as a Big Man.

The years pass. Nazneen takes in sewing to help meet Mrs. Islam’s never-ending loan payments. To her great surprise, she falls in love with a tall, handsome young Bangladeshi, born in England, who is involved in local politics. A proud Muslim, Karim leads a group, the Bengal Tigers, in marches against young white toughs.

Their love is passionate and exciting; Nazneen is filled with emotions she knew nothing about, as well as guilt and shame for breaking her marriage vows.

When at last the time comes to return to Bangladesh, Nazneen understands that she must take control of her own destiny. She decides to stay in England, to make a life for herself and her daughters. She cannot go back; Chanu cannot stay. Their parting is one of tenderness and inevitability. Chanu has been a truly loving husband, sensing what has happened, understanding and forgiving it.

Monica Ali took England by storm with “Brick Lane”; she is a fine writer with a deep sense of compassion. She knows her subject, having been born in Dhaka and, like Bibi and Shahana, grown up in England. “Brick Lane” is a poignant, moving story of immigrants’ lives in a hostile land where a young sheltered Muslim woman, who has never been out alone and knows no English, must learn to find her way in the streets and to navigate through a world that requires more of her than to cook and clean her husband’s house.

“Brick Lane” lacks the wild humor and extravagant imagination of Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth,” which also dealt with the struggle of impoverished and struggling immigrants to make a life in mainstream London. But it’s a lovely work, peopled with interesting, often amusing and sometimes tragic, minor characters. It is replete not only with the personal conflicts of the main characters but the struggles within the immigrant community itself. It offers insight into a way of life that is often invisible to the majority.

Miss Ali has written a love story, a tale of the triumph of the heart and head of a woman taught to obey and not to question; of her gradual transformation into a person of confidence and responsibility. When Hasina leaves her secure employment to run off with the cook, Nazneen understands that “she isn’t going to give up.” “Brick Lane” is precisely this, the story of a woman who does not give up, but faces the future believing, as her friend Razia tells her when questioned about the possibility of skating in a sari: “This is England … You can do whatever you like.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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