"What were we looking for? In the context of Monica Ali's still-to-be-published first novel, Brick Lane, about a Muslim housewife in east London, I'd mentioned to Hilary [Mantel] something that V.S. Naipaul wrote or said: that one of the points of a novel was to bring the reader 'news'. Ali's novel was pertinent to now; she'd imagined what such a woman's life might be like. Hilary returned to this in an email:Reading Brick Lane, I felt that both the book's strength and weakness come up in the area of bringing 'news.'
This process has made me think that what I want from a novel, and I realize that one of the things I want is 'news' -- in the sense that you mentioned earlier. It seems to me a reader should expect a novel to take her outside the tight circle of her own knowledge and concerns. News may be from alien places or other eras, properly realized on the page. Or it may be from places and people very familiar, reappraised and reinterpreted, or made strange so that the reader has to think about their meaning. It may be news from the inarticulate, who have not spoken for themselves (or who we can't hear). Or it may be news from the writer's psyche. What it mustn't be, for me, is false news, where tricks of style dress up lack of content, or where inauthenticity creeps through a text -- that is what happens when a writer is either insufficiently observant about day-to-day life, or has not imagined their fictional world thoroughly enough. It is not only facts that need rigor; fiction needs it badly."
The novel is written from the point of view of Nazneen, a Bengali girl who grew up in rural Mymensingh district and arrives in London as a young woman married to Chanu, a man who has been living in England for many years. Monica Ali successfully puts herself in Nazneen's shoes and through her eyes, she brings the reader to the world of the Bengali immigrant community in London's East End. She didn't do this as a journalist, she pulled it off as a novelist. There are many young women who are jolted out of a village in Bangladesh one day to find themselves the next day in London, married to immigrant men who have already spent years there. Stories of migrant women, newly married wives to non-resident South Asian men, are not new to the genre of South Asian writing in English. But I do not recall any other writer who has tackled this particular task, of imagining and fleshing out on the page the life of a young woman who's grown up in a village, who knows only a couple of English words, who must suddenly negotiate an alien country, feel out entirely new relationships with neighbors both Bengali and English, and come to terms with marriage to a stranger.
|Brick Lane, London|
I found Nazneen's character strongly developed. Monica Ali is able to depict Nazneen in a variety of settings: looking out of the window of her flat in council housing; caring for a very sick child in a London hospital (probably one of my favorite chapters); trying to sort out the changing politics around her, both of the racists and the young Muslim militants; relating to life in her flat with her husband and teenage children; swept up in a love affair with a spirited young man; and searching for her runaway daughter amidst a rebellion of Bengali youth on the streets of east London. From someone who's largely an observer, Nazneen grows into a woman gaining confidence and acting to change her circumstances.
The husband Chanu is viewed from Nazneen's point of view. This is inherently a limited perspective. But starting off as a mere cipher, Chanu becomes someone Nazneen learns to not just adjust to but also develop some affection for. The gaps between them never close, though they narrow. But despite the estrangements and alienation, we come to understand Chanu even if we never fully like him.
I also liked the stories from Nazneen's childhood in the Bangladeshi village, stories that Monica Ali has noted in interviews and readings came from her own father's memories of life in rural Bengal.
Besides this link to Nazneen's Bangladeshi past, the author also keeps alive a connection with contemporary urban Bangladesh. This she does through Nazneen's sister Hasina who appears in the text through her letters to Nazneen. These letters not only display a sister with a very different spirit, one more outgoing and risktaking, but they also bring us 'news' from the world of working class women in Bangladesh. The author has acknowledged that much of this was derived from Bengali scholar Naila Kabeer's book on garment workers in Dhaka and London.
The strength of the book as 'news,' also ended up being its weakness. I felt that Monica Ali attempts to bring her readers everything she knows or has learned about Bangladesh. Not only does she focus on life in Tower Hamlets, giving us a glimpse of class and gender relations there, but she also tries to impart life in contemporary urban Bangladesh, life in rural Bangladesh, and even chunks of the history of Bangladesh through the mouth of Chanu. At times I wished that the author had been more selective and saved some of that for other writing efforts. Perhaps Monica Ali does not intend to write another book about Bangladeshis and she felt compelled to throw everything in here. That may well be the case, but still, selection would have helped this book.
I was frustrated with the pidgin English Monica Ali uses in Hasina's letters to Nazneen. Neither sister knows English, so presumably the correspondence takes place in Bangla. It will probably be in a colloquial Bangla, perhaps a village dialect. Or it can be a combination of the standard Bangla spoken/written in Bangladesh and a village dialect. I appreciate that this presents a peculiar challenge in how a writer should represent it when writing the story in English. Monica Ali chose to create a pidgin English. I do not think this translates well. If the sisters were writing each other in English, this might have made sense. For me, the first bits of the correspondence puzzled me, but after a while the language proved to be a hindrance in my reading.
Monica Ali came to read in San Francisco in September. Because of slow traffic on the Bay Bridge, I arrived just as she was finishing her reading. In the Q&A period, I asked her why she made the choice to put Hasina's letters in broken English. She indicated that a lot of thought had gone into this decision. She noted that Hasina was not literate so she would not be writing literate Bengali. Fair enough. She also wished to distinguish her character from Nazneen's letters which were restrained, reflecting a different kind of personality. Since Hasina's character was more exuberant, she wanted that aspect of her to tumble into her written words. So she chose to write it in a pidgin. She said that she was not trying to represent a Bengali dialect. While her answers gave me a sense of what she was striving for, she didn't persuade me. The problem I have is that it sounds like Hasina is writing in an English pidgin and most readers will simply assume that to be true. There are other readers who have a different opinion on this. A Bengali woman at the reading indicated to me that the pidgin had worked for her, that it had reminded her of letters she had seen from village people where there would be a mixture of 'standard' Bengali and the rural dialect.
I am happy that Monica Ali made the short list for the Booker Prize. I liked this book and look forward to more from her. As a debut novel, it is a solid achievement.
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