Brick Lane by Monica Ali

What surprised me most of all about this book was not its contents, but the fact that it belongs to my dad. He normally confines his tastes to crime (Lee Child) and hefty history books, so to have a domestic novel about forced marriage on his shelves was a revelation.

Other than that, nothing else was particularly exciting, alas.

According to a recent Lit reading list, Brick Lane is about race and rebellion – it is very much about race, but not so much rebellion. The protagonist, Nazneen, is forced into marriage, and flies to England from Bangladesh to live with her new husband. There are some touching parts, but it’s all rather mundane. Her husband is exasperating at times (but my mum would vouch that husbands are exasperating all the time), and she cleans and cooks and slowly makes friends. Basically what my mum does, as a matter of fact. I expected things to spice up a little when she meets ‘a young radical’, Karim, but he – they – weren’t as radical as I had hoped. I understand that, being Muslim, what they do may be considered as more dangerous than to, say, an atheist, but judging by the blurb, I thought that they would start an uprising or something.

I say no more.

Intertwined with Nazneen’s story is that of Hasina, her sister, who remained in their homeland. Hasina’s narrative is through a series of letters; what was slightly disconcerting was the fact that a large amount of Nazneen’s narrative was explained by only a few sentences in Hasina’s letters. I understand why Ali chose to do this – it highlights a lack of information and emotion in Nazneen’s correspondence with her sister – but to have years scraped off a character’s life so quickly was a tad confusing. I enjoy watching characters develop, but it was suddenly wham, bam, she’s got two more kids and aged years in the amount of time it takes for me to sneeze.

On the flip side, Ali’s writing has a relaxing quality to it. I don’t know what it was about her descriptive powers, but there was a certain rhythm that swept me along. Not a great rhythm, if I’m feeling relaxed in a riot scene, but transported to the blistering Asian heat, it was exactly what I was looking for.  In addition, Brick Lane exposed a whole new culture that I was completely ignorant about. I don’t know anyone who follows Islam, and my Catholic education teaches very little about other religions, and especially in these tentative political times, education is essential. Although this doesn’t focus on Nazneen’s religion, we are immersed in her culture, and her religion is always present on the sidelines, in her head. It influences her thoughts, her decisions, and her ultimate sacrifice at the end of the novel is a divisive one.

In all, an educational read. I’m still trying to figure out if I actually enjoyed it, or whether it was curiosity that drove me onward.

Have you read Brick Lane? Did you enjoy it? Or did you do the same as my English teacher, who confessed that he only read the first 100 pages and dropped it? 

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