Monica Ali’s Brick Lane: A Book Review
By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
October 1, 2003
Brick Lane: A Novel
The life of immigrants, their smiles and laughter, tears and despairs, and the constant struggle of defining and redefining one’s placement in an adopted land, faraway from that place of childhood and intimacy, these all can be found in the periphery of Monica Ali’s startling debut novel, Brick Lane. After being nominated by Granta as one of the best young British writers before her first book was published, there was high expectation from her inaugurated book. With the release of Brick Lane that was short listed by this year’s Man Booker Prize, she has reached to that level of expectation to the inch, perhaps surpassed it by a few slash.
Here are the very last few paragraphs of Brick Lane that surmise the entire story in quite supple mood:
“Nazneen turned around. To get on the ice physically – it hardly seemed to matter. In her mind she was already there.
She said, “But you can’t skate in a sari.”
Razia was already lacing her boots. “This is England,” she said. “You can do whatever you like”.
And that’s what Brick Lane about. Nazneen could skate in her sari if she wishes to without caring other people’s approval or disapproval. In a closed society that would be quite scandalous matter indeed.
Brick Lane does not try to describe religion or an immigrant segment in “black and white”, there are infinite amount of complexities, the lively characters of this novel become so much believable since the author was careful from taking any prejudicial view.
The story is centered on Nazneen. It begins from the story of her birth in a Bangladeshi village called Gouripur. When she was born, she had “tiny blue body”, and was presumed to be dead. Her relatives advised her parents to take her to the city hospital for better treatment, but her mother, who was from a “family of saint”, “held her daughter to her breast and shook her head. “No, she said, “we must not stand in the way of Fate. Whatever happens, I accept it. And my child must not waste any energy fighting against Fate. That way, she will be stronger.”
Throughout the story, Nazneen was depicted as a woman who is struggling through her “fate” of being married to a much older man, Chanu, who has taken her to England. In the beginning, Nazneen was a typical village girl whom Chanu describes as “unspoiled”. She obediently cooks for her husband, cuts his corns, washes dishes, dust all the piled up books and mounting furniture. She walks one step behind Chanu. She listens to Chanu’s chattering, his dreams, his big ambitions, his depiction of “ignorant people”, and his never-ending plans of getting promotion, starting up businesses, his flowery praises of obscure Open University where he is taking classes, his quotations of Shakespeare and other century old writers from his proud English Literature degree from the Dhaka University.
The way Monica Ali describes Chanu in the first half of this novel with context of Nazneen’s semi-closeted life, the readers will surely feel strong disliking for Chanu. He does not want his wife to go to school to learn English neither he permits her to work though they were financially struggling after Chanu’s resignation from his long held job. Chanu is an ambitious man. He is a man of dreams. Perhaps he lived in his dreams. Nazneen was a good observer. From her years long companionship with her husband she had deduced quite correctly that Chanu would never get success in his career. All the framed and unframed certificates are only for gathering dusts.
Nazneen has a younger sister, Hasina, who had fled with a boy before she was forced into a marriage of her father’s choosing. Through her correspondences with Nazneen, she describes her life filled with dejection and poverty. With the parallel story unfolding in London, England in Nazneen’s life, readers get a good glimpse on Hasina’s life in Bangladesh. There were vivid descriptions of Hasina when she was a garment worker, her eventual firing from the job for nonsensical reason, her being raped by an older man, and her turning into a prostitute. Hasina never gives up, she fights back to regain her dignity. She begins working in a “respectable” home as a maid. Lovely, the beauty model was her employer. Here Monica Ali interjects observations on Bangladeshi politics, especially, politics related to the plastic industries and its eventual ban.
By the time Nazneen’s son Raqib was fallen seriously ill, Nazneen had silently begin to question on the religion’s ritual. Here are a few of her thoughts: “From now on when she prayed it would be in a different, better way. She realized with some amazement that, while she had knelt, while she had prostrated herself and recited the words, she had never fully engaged in them. In prayer she sought to stupefy herself like a drunk with a bottle, like a fly against a lantern. This was not the correct way to pray. It was not the correct way to read the suras. It was not the correct way to live”.
Still she believes in God. Though she was in the midst of confusion regarding the religion and way of the world, in her moment of sadness, around her sick child she still believed that God decides everything. “Whatever she did, only God decided. God knows everything. He knows the number of hairs on your head, don’t forget. Amma said that when they went off to school. She called after them, shouting in her strangled voice. “He sees you, don’t forget. He knows the number of hairs on your head.” She thought about it. No, all that she had done for Raqib was nothing. God decided. She thought about How You Were Left to Your Fate. See! It made no difference. Amma did nothing to save her. And she lived. It was in God’s hands.” But here the skeptic side of Nazneen revolts. She begins to question on believing blindly on fate. “If Nazneen had not brought the baby to the hospital at once, he would have died. The doctors said it. It was no lie. Did she kick about at home wailing and wringing her hands? Did she draw attention to her plight with long sighs and ostentatiously hidden weeping? Did she call piously for God to take what he would and leave her with nothing? Did she act, in short, like her mother? A Saint?” No Nazneen did not act her like “saint” mother, she had taken the matter on her hands rather than living it on “fate” for which Nazneen has gradually less belief. After her son’s untimely death, her skepticisms on religion grew more but still she was a believer.
In the following years, Nazneen gave birth to two more girls, Shahana and Bibi. As they grew, Chanu became more concerned on their well-beings. He wanted them to embrace the Bangladeshi culture. He had pride in the history of Bengal. He confides to his wife, “You see, all these people here who look down on us as peasants know nothing of history.” He sat up a little and cleared his throat. “In the sixteenth century, Bengal was called the Paradise of Nations. These are our roots. Do they teach these things in the school here? Does Shahana know about the Paradise of Nations? All she knows about is flood and famine. Whole bloody country is just a bloody basket case to her.” He examined his text further and made little approving, purring noises. “If you have a history, you see, you have a pride. The whole world was going to Bengal to do trade. Sixteenth century and seventeenth century. Dhaka was the home of textiles. Who invented all this muslin and damask and every damn thing? It was us. All the Dutch and Portuguese and French and British queuing up to buy.”
Now Nazneen begins to question some of Chanu’s remarks. When he made his derogatory remarks on the Sylhetis living in London who for him are “not the best face of our nation”, Nazneen quietly said,
“Colonel Osmany, Shah Jalal”.
“What?” said Chanu. “What?”
“Our great national hero and –“
“I know who they are!”
Nazneen apologized with a smile, and then added, “And that they both come from Sylhet”.
A new young man arrives in Nazneen’s life, he is Karim, a self-assured man, who begins an organization called “The Bengal Tigers”, to counter the racial intoned leaflets distributed by the racist groups. Unlike Chanu who did not follow religion, Karim was a devoted Muslim. He helped Nazneen get cloth-stitching assignments through his contacts. He begins to pray in her home when Chanu is not around. Nazneen learns various world issues from Karim, she learns the plights of Palestinians in the hands of Israelis in the occupied territory, she learns about the problems in Chechnya and other places.
Nazneen begins to have self-doubts in her submissive roles as a wife. When they go to grocery, Nazneen still follows Chanu, step behind, “for a moment she saw herself clearly, following her husband, head bowed, hair covered, and she was pleased. In the next instant her feet became heavy and her shoulders ached.” She still strongly believes in Gods, religions and angels and myriads of other beliefs she has retained from her childhood. Here is a good description: “Nazneen adjusted her headscarf. She was conscious of being watched. Everything she did, everything she had done since the day of her birth, was recorded. Sometimes, from the corner of her eye, she thought she saw them. Her two angels, who recorded every action and thought, good and evil, for the Day of Judgment. It struck her then – and the force of it made her grasp – that this street was filled with angels. For every one person there were two more angels; the air was thick with them. She walked with her face turned down to her feet and she felt her head pushing through a density of wings. She was seized with a fear of inhaling spirit, and pulled cloth over her mouth and nose. For the first time, she heard the beating of a thousand angel wings and her legs would take her no further.”
All these thoughts, the guilt feelings were arising due to Nazneen’s gradual falling in love with Karim, “all the time, Nazneen felt the angels at her back. She jerked her shoulders. Karim came into her mind. The angels noted it. She felt irritated. I did not ask him to come into my mind like that. It was recorded.”
Nazneen begins to compare her husband with her newfound “love”, “His neck, thought Nazneen, was just right. Not too thick, and not too thin. And he was taqwa. More God-conscious than her own husband.”
As was noted earlier, the first half of the book presented Chanu as an irritating person, but the second half of the book presents him as a loving husband and a father, as if the writer wants to show a conflict of emotions that Nazneen is going through, deciding who is the one she loves the most. Chanu takes his family to a tour of London, after he has decided that they will return to Bangladesh, away from all the “western corruptions” and “degradation”. He tries to mend his bitter relationship with her older daughter, Shahana. He begins to notice that all of his efforts has not bring him any success in career, here is a few extracts of Chanu’s thoughts: “Sometimes I look back and I am shocked. Every day of my life I have prepared for success, worked for it, waited for it, and you don’t notice how the days pass until nearly a lifetime has finished. Then it hits you – the thing you have been waiting for has already gone by. And it was going in the other direction. It’s like I’ve been waiting on the wrong side of the road for a bus that was already full.”
Nazneen feels being trapped, she loves her husband Chanu, but Karim “lifts her soul up” that makes her life “colorful”. But a family friend advises her the following: “there are two kinds of love. The kind that starts off big and slowly wears away, that seems you can never use it up and then one day is finished. And the kind that you don’t notice at first, but which adds a little bit to itself every day, like an oyster makes a pearl, grain by grain, a jewel from the sand.”
September 11, 2001 disasters were portrayed quite eloquently by the author, the thoughts of Muslim immigrants in England at that troubling period of time and aftermath was clearly described as was the life of other sister Hasina, as a maid in a “respectable” home, but still longing for a better life with love.
Monica Ali builds her story, slowly in the beginning, but the end comes in a storm, the riots in Brick Lane, the drug addicts’ agonies in the struggle of becoming sober again, the heartless dealings with a “usurer” woman and her two thug sons, the kindness of a widow who shows Nazneen the virtue of resilience at the face of mountain like obstacles, the rebellion of Shahana for not wanting to go back to the land that she never knew, Chanu’s determined efforts in hard work, earning money, and losing weights, his silence seemed like more eventful to Nazneen, he feels more assured in his causes while Karim becomes boisterous and less assured.
All through the story, readers will be amused; they will yearn to know what happens in Nazneen’s life. Monica Ali is successful in maintaining the story thrilling to the end.