Tuesday, May 18, 2021

the last book I read

Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

Nazneen was born in fairly unpromising circumstances in a Bangladeshi village in the late 1960s, and, being premature, was not initially expected to survive. But, foreshadowing her unexpected resilience in the later stages of the novel, she does survive. Nonetheless the general prospects for a young girl aren't great, especially after her mother kills herself in a rather baroque fashion with a ceremonial spear. So Nazneen finds herself betrothed to an older man, also a Bangladeshi but older, from a different part of the country and currently residing in London. Without any knowledge of the world outside her village, and no knowledge of the English language, Nazneen is shipped off to be married and make a life for herself in London, specifically in the large Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets

Her new husband, Chanu, is a kindly enough sort of chap, though not exactly an oil painting, and afflicted with a sort of unshakeably delusional optimism about the soundness of his own ideas and the general blindly meritocratic nature of British society. The result of these things is that he gets into a series of menial jobs, gets downhearted when his ideas about how the business should best be run don't get him an instant leg up the corporate ladder, and leaves to move on to another job.

Nazneen, meanwhile, busies herself producing and caring for two daughters, Shahana and Bibi, doing all the usual cooking and cleaning, attempting to learn some English and corresponding with her sister Hasina back in Bangladesh. Hasina is having a few challenges of her own: an abusive marriage, abuse and exploitation from her boss at work, and eventually getting drawn into prostitution in order to make ends meet. Nazneen does her best to help by sending money occasionally, but there isn't much to spare.

One day Chanu has a bit of a stopped-clock moment and brings home something useful: a sewing machine. Nazneen soon gets up and running using it and is soon taking in sewing for some local Bangladeshi Del Boys, including intense young activist Karim. Not only does this enable her to bring in some extra money, but it sparks a bit of political consciousness in Nazneen and inspires her to get out of the house and go to a few meetings. Karim's presence at these is part of the appeal, of course, and as well as leading consciousness-raising efforts in the local community he is soon waging ruthless jihad in Nazneen's knickers.

Trouble is on the horizon, though, from a few different sources. Karim's group are waging a campaign against a BNP-esque group in the area, but are also having some more People's Front Of Dhaka-style internal disagreements. Nazneen lives in constant guilt about her affair with Karim and constant fear of being discovered. And Chanu's half-arsed entrepreneurial activities are revealed to have been partly financed by a loan (at ruinous rates of interest, naturally) from local loan shark Mrs. Islam, who employs her two somewhat bone-headed sons as enforcers for people who fall behind with the repayments. Nice flat you've got here, shame if someone was to break it, that sort of thing.

Chanu eventually decides that London is unacceptably corrupt and crime-ridden and that the best solution is for the whole family to uproot itself and relocate to Dhaka to start a new life. Well, of course, it's not "relocating" for Shahana and Bibi, who were born in London and are thoroughly Westernised teenagers and who naturally take a pretty dim view of the whole scheme. Nazneen's newly-developed political sensibility and self-confidence mean that she is also reluctant to make the move as well, though she's not so freed from submission to the patriarchy that she feels able to make Chanu aware of this up-front. After a bit of last-minute drama when Shahana runs away from home on the eve of their planned departure, gets caught up with some (mainly Muslim-on-Muslim) rioting on Brick Lane and has to be rescued by Nazneen, Chanu is finally brought into the picture and has to accept that his wife and daughters aren't coming with him to Dhaka - something that he takes remarkably well, considering. 

That last section of the book illustrates one of its problems: the conflict between Chanu's portrayal as a slightly infuriating but basically good-hearted and lovable buffoon who just wants the best for himself and his wife and daughters, and the necessity of involving him in some of the more gnarly elements of the plot: the highly-charged political meetings that Karim and his associates oversee, and the climactic events wherein he flies off to Bangladesh with promises from Nazneen that she and the girls will join him "later", which, even given his boundless optimism, he must surely know means "never". He never quite fits properly into the serious bits, unlike Karim who is generally a fairly humourless character.

There was some furore at the time of Brick Lane's original publication in 2003 and its filming in 2007 about whether Monica Ali, despite sharing some biographical detail with Nazneen (born in Bangladesh, relocated to Britain), was an authentic enough Bangladeshi Muslim voice to really tell a story such as this, and whether the portrayal of the Muslim community was unduly harsh. I'm probably not adequately qualified to comment on the first point, although it does seem an odd standard to hold someone to - had Dalton Trumbo actually had his face and all of his limbs blown off? What actual experience did Michael Marshall Smith have of actually rescuing genetic clones from an organ farm in a dystopian future world? Had Henry Miller actually drunk and fucked his way round Paris in the 1930s? Well, yes, OK, bad example, but you take my point, as Henry Miller said to several French prostitutes.

So, did I like it? Yes. Did I love it? Eh, no, not really. But it's a perfectly easy and entertaining read, even at a fairly hefty not-quite-500 pages. It is, I think, the third novel on this list after Falling Man and Dead Air to feature the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a significant plot point. It also shares a few themes (Muslim political consciousness-raising, excitingly illicit sexy sexy times) with The Black Album, and a partial setting in or around the Indian sub-continent with The God Of Small Things and the other novels listed in that post. Brick Lane was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, as was The Good Doctor. That brings my total for that year to three (Notes On A Scandal being the other), one short of the record (I think) of four held jointly by 1984, 1989 and 2001.