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Thursday, September 11th, 2003


Brick Lane

by Monica Ali

Making It New

A review by James Wood

In the last twenty years, British and American fiction has been renewed by what might be called the immigration of content. In America, this useful novelty has tended to result from the inevitable hyphenation of the once apparently stable monad of Americanness (Cuban-American fiction, Puerto Rican-American, Asian American, and so on). In Britain, the vast centrifuge of empire has more often resulted in fiction set outside Britain, or, when set in Britain, fiction explicitly about immigration. Hyphenation has been, for immigrants, a trickier train to catch in Britain than in the more hospitable United States.

Plenty of readers, critics, and academics have been grateful for the augmentation of material, the opening of "colorful" worlds, not to mention the at times radical literary techniques, that this new life has brought to fiction. At such times the etymology of the word "novel" is always mentioned, and Ezra Pound's definition of literature as "news that STAYS news" is reliably invoked. What is not so often said is that this new material has another and perhaps more momentous service to perform, which is to return fiction to its nineteenth-century gravity. This it does by re-importing into the Western novel traditional societies, with their ties of marriage, burdens of religion, obligations of civic duty, and pressures of propriety -- and thereby restoring to the novel form some of the old oppressions that it was created to comprehend and to resist and in some measure to escape. This was the case with Vikram Seth's massive panorama A Suitable Boy, and it is the case with Monica Ali's splendid first novel.

Ali's novel brings with it the undeniable fascination of novelty. Nazneen, a poorly educated eighteen-year-old Muslim girl from a traditional village in Bangladesh, is plucked by arranged marriage from the only place that she has known to a grim housing estate in the east end of London, where she must live with her much more literate, patchily anglicized forty-year-old husband. The miserable shock of immigration to Britain has been touched on by other writers -- Naipaul, Rushdie, the Sri Lankan novelist Romesh Gunesekera -- but no writer I know of has taken as her entire stretched subject the loneliness and the shabby poverty of these English near-ghettos. This is the world of sweatshops and their grim women doing piecework on sewing machines, and residents looking down on gray concrete courts from the fifteenth floor of subsidized housing, and busy gangs of Bangladeshi youths, some radicalized by Islam, some stunned by drug addiction. Zadie Smith's multicultural north London was a fictional universe that readers wanted to visit, in part because it was new to them and in part because it was so essentially cheerful; but Ali's fictional world is shockingly monocultural -- it contains only Bangladeshis who by choice and by necessity keep to themselves -- and it is far from cheerful, even if her book is frequently comic.

This expansion of vision is the traditional benefit of new fictional material, and there is plenty of it here. (One of the characters, for instance, receives "salaat alerts" on his cell phone, regular reminders of prayer times from a commercial Islamic calling service.) But the novelty of Ali's world is also a restoration, for it allows her, quite naturally, to inhabit a fictional realm in which prayer, free will, and adultery all have their antique weight. Take adultery, for instance: once the great motor of the novel, it is now an idle cylinder, only formulaically or nominally used to give plot a bit of a lift. Adultery has withered as a fictional theme because it drags such little consequence behind it nowadays. In nineteenth-century fiction, by contrast, adultery was literally used by plot: it had weight by virtue of its place in a system of shame, punishment, desire, escape, and imprisonment, and to set it ticking was to set that system ticking, too.

So it is intensely gripping and involving when young Nazneen, who disliked her husband in the early years of their marriage and has only begun to tolerate his presence, finds herself distracted by desire for a young Bangladeshi Londoner, and begins an affair with him. For quite apart from the absolute censure of the community, Nazneen, who is a faithful Muslim, herself is certain that she will burn in eternal hell for her sin. Likewise, Ali's treatment of free will and determinism draws power from the fact that the novel's protagonist devoutly believes in fate. When Razia, her best friend in London, asks why her husband complains so much about Britain if his life there is better than it would be in Bangladesh, Nazneen has no answer: "She was in this country because that was what had happened to her. Anyone else, therefore, was here for the same reason." Again, some of the plottiness of nineteenthcentury fiction was owed not merely to literary convention but also to the fact that many novelists believed in determinism, which was both obeyed and resisted by many heroes and heroines (especially the latter). Fictionally speaking, it takes a good deal of enactment, a good deal of story, for determinism to enact itself -- for readers to feel that plot is being, as it were, rubbed into the very souls of the characters.

Ali's most daring decision may be her bestowal of what amounts to semiliteracy upon her heroine. Nazneen is not semi-literate, of course; but her abrupt arrival in London -- a girl who had never seen much more than her village -- and her inability at first to speak any English render her so in Britain. Ali keeps her narrative very close to Nazneen's; we are never given independent access to any other character in the book; our sense of everything is passed through this heroine's impressions. Thus all the new information that we learn about this world, and indeed about the London world, is Nazneen's information, approached as she approaches it. We have become so used to the idea that new information is a chance for the writer to show off a bit, to tell us how much he knows (goodness, he really does know so much about real estate in North Dakota!), so used to the idea of information as a part of writerly style, a ripple of style's muscles, that it comes as a refreshing shock to encounter new information through what is a kind of anti-style.

But it is not, in fact, an anti-style; it is the suppression of obvious authorial style in the interest of a character's style. (And so it is the greatest style.) The result is a lovely simplicity, as we are led to inhabit the wide-eyed ignorance of a village girl from Bangladesh, and to watch it develop itself. Early in the book, Nazneen sees a few minutes of ice-skating on television without understanding what she is watching. Ali refrains from telling her or us what it is; we are to undergo the almost hermeneutic process of finding out:

A man in a very tight suit (so tight that it made his private parts stand out on display) and a woman in a skirt that did not even cover her bottom gripped each other as an invisible force hurtled them across an oval arena. The people in the audience clapped their hands together and then stopped. By some magic they all stopped at exactly the same time. The couple broke apart. They fled from each other and no sooner had they fled than they sought each other out. Every move they made was urgent, intense, a declaration. The woman raised one leg and rested her boot (Nazneen saw the thin blade for the first time) on the other thigh. . . .

This passage may not look like anything much, until one realizes the care with which Ali makes Nazneen notice everything except what would have been most obvious to a Western watcher: that this is ice-skating. Nazneen sees instead the immodest private parts, the people clapping and suddenly not clapping at the same time (a brilliant touch -- the staged decorum of such audiences must indeed seem a strange thing to one who has never witnessed it before), the free and erotic intensity between man and woman (Nazneen, by contrast, has recently overheard her husband Chanu telling a friend on the phone that his wife is "an unspoilt village girl" whose eyes are rather too close together, and "a good worker"), and finally, only then, the "thin blade" on the boot.

Seeing everything through Nazneen's eyes returns the gift of "estrangement" (as the Russian formalists used to call it) to fiction. Everything must be made new, in a halting sojourn of discovery. This becomes Ali's systematic procedure in the novel -- refreshing and often wonderful in itself, and also of course succeeding in bringing us closer to Nazneen's travails and triumphs. A walk in the streets -- the novel gets its title from a street in the borough of Tower Hamlets famous for Bangladeshi restaurants -- is an oceanic voyage for Nazneen, at least in her early months in Britain. She sees many people dressed like her, in saris or in punjabi pajamas and skullcaps, but then her eyes alight on a differently dressed pair, "in short dark skirts with matching jackets. Their shoulders were padded up and out. They could balance a bucket on each side and not spill a drop of water." Thus she discovers shoulder pads. (It is 1985.)

One day Nazneen strays from her familiar rounds, and wanders towards the financial district of London. She sees a pair of schoolchildren, "pale as rice and loud as peacocks," and comes to a stop at the foot of a vast glass tower.

The entrance was like a glass fan, rotating slowly, sucking people in, wafting others out.... Every person who brushed past her on the pavement, every back she saw, was on a private, urgent mission to execute a precise and demanding plan: to get a promotion today, to be exactly on time for an appointment, to buy a newspaper with the right coins so that the exchange was swift and seamless, to walk without wasting a second and to reach the roadside just as the lights turned red.

As a writerly description of a bustling London crowd, this may at first seem flat -- where are the theoretical riffs on crowds, the slicing metaphors, the brilliant details? Until, again, one realizes that what has been beautifully captured, without any authorial commentary, is Nazneen's massive navet. There is the marvelous image of the revolving door seen as a massive fan -- why should she have ever seen one of these doors before? -- and then there is the almost childish certainty that because everyone is moving urgently on the street, each person is executing "a precise and demanding plan." And great subtlety is used in the fleshing out of Nazneen's idea of what constitutes such a plan: "to be exactly on time for an appointment" or "to reach the roadside just as the lights turned red."

But Nazneen is not simply a vessel for estrangement, vivifying as this effect is. The power of Ali's book is the way in which it charts its heroine's slow accumulation of English, her gathering confidence as a mother and a wife, and the undulations of her marriage to a man whom she eventually learns to respect and perhaps even to love. Again, this arc is traced in the subtlest ways. When Nazneen's first child dies in the hospital, the name of his illness is never given; we are told merely about "the rash" that brought him to the emergency room, "those little red seeds." This is in perfect accord with Nazneen's own linguistic and medical competence; she has barely learned the word "hospital," after all. So it comes as a pleasant shock, a measured gratification, when, a hundred or so pages and eight years later, Ali refers casually to one of Nazneen's daughters having been in the hospital with "tonsillitis." The daughters have taught their mother English, and her confidence, linguistic and medical, has grown.

Yet even when Nazneen has learned something, Ali takes care to show how her knowledge is framed in ignorance. Halfway through the book, when Nazneen has already experienced all kinds of instruction in life, she wanders down Brick Lane, and notices the differences between the cheap restaurants and the expensive ones (not that she has ever set foot in the latter): "The tables were set far apart and there was an absence of decoration that Nazneen knew to be a style." "Knew to be a style": that is all. Nothing more. Because that is all that Nazneen does know. She could not expatiate on what we call minimalism; she has merely been long enough in London to recognize a style. (An absence of decoration that is yet a style might also be an apt characterization of Ali's prose.) Think how often fancy restaurants are described in metropolitan fiction, and in such knowing waves of sarcasm! By contrast, such simplicity on Ali's part, such authorial reticence coupled with such authorial sympathy, is a strenuous achievement.

Nazneen's marriage is at the heart of this book, and Chanu, her husband, is its other leading character. He is a Biswas figure -- earnest, probably more self-educated than formally schooled (he has a degree, or so he says, from Dhaka University), restless, yearning, and vulnerable, desperate to escape but tied to his destiny by the modesty of his ticket. Almost as soon as he is married, he longs to return to Bangladesh, to remove his family before they can be "spoiled" by British ways, and his constant invocation -- "by then we could be in Dhaka" -- has a canonical, not to say Russian, mournfulness. He is of course a stranger to Nazneen when they marry: a plump, not very attractive middle-aged man who works for the local council and dreams of a promotion that, we know, will never come his way. About the marriage, Ali is devastating: "In all her eighteen years, she could scarcely remember a moment that she had spent alone. Until she married." Nazneen is wary of Chanu at first, and loathes the physical impositions of their union -- she has to cut his corns and his hair; and it is not until their son dies and Chanu becomes a real companion that she realizes that although she does not love her husband, he is a good man, worthy of respect. A hundred pages elapse before we witness physical tenderness or even shared laughter.

Since the fine comic-pathetic lineage of Biswas sits so obviously behind Chanu, he can at times seem only a recognizable type, even a somewhat literary one; and Ali does not really deepen him as the novel progresses. Just as Mr. Biswas corresponded with something called the Edgware School of Journalism, so Chanu keeps framed certificates on his wall, including one from Morley College, where he attended evening classes on nineteenth-century thought -- though, as he explains to Nazneen, the college did not actually give him a diploma: "it's just directions to the school, but that's all they gave out. No certificates." She subtly captures his vulnerability and his bombast in scene after scene. Chanu invites Dr. Azad, the local physician and the most "respectable" Bangladeshi he knows, to supper, and at one point remarks, painfully, that "we intellectuals must stick together." But when Dr. Azad's fierce wife interrogates poor Chanu, he retreats into incoherence. Chanu has claimed, in his usual pontifical way, that "to be an immigrant is to live out a tragedy." But Dr. Azad's wife will have none of it:

"What are you talking about?"
"The clash of cultures."
"I beg your pardon?"
"And of generations," added Chanu.
"What is the tragedy?"
"It's not only immigrants. Shakespeare wrote about it."

Chanu is a defeated man, despite his rhetoric, or because of it; and one of the funniest and saddest scenes occurs when he returns home one day with a computer. He gathers Nazneen and his two daughters around him, and proceeds to write something: "he examined the keyboard closely before each stroke, putting his face right down by the letters as though something valuable had slipped between the cracks. Minutes later he had completed a sentence.... 'Dear Sir, I am writing to inform you.' 'It all comes back so quickly,' said Chanu, in English. His cheeks were red with pleasure."

There is much satisfaction to be had from the gentleness and the tact with which Ali animates this boisterous and anxious man: "Only his eyes were unhappy. What are we doing here, they said, what are we doing on this round, jolly face?" As Nazneen's affection for him develops, so does ours: "He came next to her and leaned on the radiator. If there was a solid surface in sight, Chanu would rest against it. Mental toil, he said. That is the real exercise. No harder work than mental toil." Ali subtly catches Chanu out without semaphoring her satire. Thus Chanu repeatedly refers to the Open University (a state-funded extramural university where he began but did not complete a course) solecistically as "Open University," without the usual definite article. Even as the book ends, Chanu says to his wife, "The English have a saying: you can't step into the same river twice." His ignorance is gently undisturbed by the author.

Into this precarious marriage comes the violent disruption of Karim, a young activist, prominent in the local Islamic group the Bengal Tigers. Nazneen, given a sewing machine by Chanu, has started doing piecework, and Karim is the middleman whose task is to collect and to deliver her work. Karim is the opposite of Chanu: he is young, good-looking, apparently invulnerable. He saunters around Nazneen's flat, chatting on his cell phone (it is he who receives the "salaat alerts"), putting his feet up on the coffee table, and marking the space with his erotic spoor. Nazneen cannot keep her eyes off him: "When Chanu fidgeted he showed his unease. When Karim could not be still, he showed his energy." Despite her dread of the sin of adultery, Nazneen starts an affair with Karim, a relationship that precisely substitutes for the lack in her marriage: it is strongly physical, and Nazneen is indeed in love. A measure of her loneliness, in this deeply traditional society, is provided when she tries to tell her friend Razia about it. Razia's son has been discovered to be a drug addict, and thinking that one misfortune might be traded for another, Nazneen halteringly unburdens her secret. But Razia cuts her short. "You don't have to tell me," say Razia. "Just because I am in trouble, you don't have to make trouble for yourself as well." In this world, the economy of moral survival renders the lavish expenditure of "confession" mute. Razia is an unconventional Muslim woman -- later she will listen to the full story of the affair -- but Ali captures the sense that merely to hear such news is to be tainted with it.

Interestingly, Nazneen's religiousness in some way enables, rather than arrests, her sinful relationship. For once she has decided that she will burn in hell for eternity, there seems nothing to do except submit to fate and continue sinning: she is utterly lost anyway. Calvinism provides the Christian version of this kind of predestination, and James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner is the famous fictional commentary. Nazneen's Islamic serfdom to fate is a good deal calmer than the Calvinist enslavement, and besides, it has a strong personal dimension: Nazneen has always believed in such submission, partly because, as her grandmother liked to tell her, when Nazneen was born she almost died, and her mother, ignoring pleas to take the baby to the hospital, left her to survive or die, with the words: "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."

The family story of How Nazneen Was Left To Her Fate has been endlessly repeated. (And it provides a rather too neat frame for the narrative theme.) Nazneen grew up believing that "what could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne." Her sister Hasina had fought fate by running off with a lover when she was a teenager. Her subsequent tribulations, which include prostitution, have not inclined Nazneen to think highly of the liberation from fate. (Hasina's letters to Nazneen punctuate the novel.)

The struggle of the novel concerns Nazneen's capacity to struggle with her own fatedness, and this struggle will gather around the question of whether she should leave her husband (now not only determined to leave for Dhaka, but with a date in mind and tickets in hand) and marry Karim. Chanu, it is quietly suggested, knows about the affair or strongly suspects, and characteristically he shows both his strength and his weakness in his response. He does nothing, except to become markedly sweeter to his wife and children. In one of the finest scenes, Chanu decides that the family deserves a holiday, an outing. They get on the bus to see the sights -- the reader registers with a shock that in more than ten years of married life in London, Nazneen has never seen Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament, has never been to central London. As the family sits on the grass at St. James's, eating the picnic provided by Nazneen, Chanu says unexpectedly, "You know, when I married your mother, it was a stroke of luck." Brick Lane is full of unobtrusive patterning, and Chanu's chivalrous admission comes as a surprise not only because it is one of the few compliments Chanu has uttered to his wife, but also because it inverts, for the first time, his usual mantra, which is to remind Nazneen again and again of how lucky she is to have married "an educated man." Nazneen, meanwhile, is thinking about Karim, and trying to sort out in her head how much Chanu knows.

Brick Lane is a great achievement of the subtlest storytelling -- the kind that proceeds illuminatingly, in units of characters rather than in wattage of "style." There is, of course, a great deal of literary style in this book, and Ali is quite capable of fine similes and metaphors. She has a sharp satirical sentence on how the radical boys at the Bengal Tigers meetings are dressed: "The boys wore jeans, or tracksuits with big ticks [i.e., check marks] on them as if their clothing had been marked by a teacher who valued, above all else, conformity." Or this, on the arrival of politicians to the housing estate after a race riot: "Politicians came and walked around the estate with their hands behind their backs to show that they were not responsible, leaning forward slightly to indicate that they were looking to the future." Though Nazneen is watching the Nike-daubed boys and the politicians, this is clearly not her language; Ali allows herself the freedom to disengage every so often from Nazneen's perceptions. But the bulk of the book is occupied by the unforgettable Nazneen; she is Ali's quarry, and the great prize of the prose is the way it subdues itself to her fears, her ignorance, her triumphs, and finally her comprehension. The novel's ending is wisely ambiguous. Nazneen does not escape her fate, or even necessarily resist it, but she understands it. Life has been her Morley College.

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