Review: Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Natasha Walter finds that Monica Ali's fêted first novel, Brick Lane, lives up to its hype

Brick Lane
by Monica Ali
389pp, Doubleday, £12.99

When you begin Monica Ali's first novel, which catapulted her on to the Granta best young British novelists list before it was even published, you might be forgiven for feeling that the fuss has been a little overstated. The first chapter, with the birth of our heroine, Nazneen, her survival against the odds and her preparation for an arranged marriage to a Londoner are trundled through without much individuality. In her rather predictable portrait of life in Bangladesh, Ali uses forgettable images. Nazneen's mother "had been ripening like a mango on a tree". The midwife "was more desiccated than an old coconut".

But Ali's talent is far greater than first impressions would suggest. She has a slow-burn style, a winning way of exploring how the contradictions of life gradually build and knit together into experience. Nazneen is not a finished person when she arrives in London as a bride for Chanu, and so it makes sense that Ali's prose style is, until that point, rather naive. But Nazneen is eager to grow up and Ali's prose grows with her, gaining in depth and complexity, gradually creating a compellingly subtle fictional world as Nazneen struggles to make a life for herself within her traditional marriage and the East End immigrant community.

At the heart of the book lies a marvellous depiction of an adulterous affair. As a good Bengali wife, Nazneen does not enter lightly into her sexual adventure, and her lover, Karim, a fierce young Muslim who wants to radicalise the local community, has deeply held beliefs against promiscuity. But as Karim comes to Nazneen's house day after day, bringing her the piecework for her sewing job, Ali shows how the physical attraction that explodes between them destroys their moral expectations. She captures all the little details of Karim's attractiveness to Nazneen, from the citrus scent of his shirts to his eager energy when discussing politics, until, long before their first kiss, you have been convinced by a sense of absolutely inexorable desire.

But although she is so good at showing how this desire catches Nazneen unawares, the relationship between Nazneen and her husband isn't given the short shrift that one might expect in such a context. Ali has a deft comic touch, and at first Chanu seems to be not much more than a figure of fun, with his huge belly, his useless certificates for unimpressive qualifications, his crumpled trousers, his deluded ambitions, and the corns on his feet that poor Nazneen has to scrape away night after night.

But gradually we come to see him rather differently, as a figure who is, tragically, aware of his own shortcomings and of the way his dreams of integration have been thwarted. Ali paints a terrifically subtle portrait of how such a marriage is threatened in a culture in which a woman is encouraged to grow beyond it, how he and Nazneen build a strange relationship of simultaneous closeness and apartness, how they hurt one another and also depend on one another.

Beyond this moving portrait of the domestic world, I cannot think of another novel in which the politics of our times are caught with such easy vividness. So many novelists either ignore politics altogether, or else they treat politics as journalists do, by making arguments rather than creating situations. But here, everything political that the characters say or do seems to spring from their own hopes and disappointments, so that - even when they are reacting to September 11 or the Oldham riots - it never feels as if Ali is simply using them to illustrate a point. Particularly impressive are the precisely observed descriptions of the meetings of Karim's group of local Muslims, the "Bengal Tigers", where girls in headscarves and boys in Nike fleeces argue about whether they should engage with global jihad or local injustices.

As she sits in those meetings, Nazneen first of all burns with silent admiration for Karim and his impressive certainty about his place in life, but gradually she comes to realise that her lover's dreams of Islamic renaissance may turn out to be as flimsy as Chanu's dreams of integration. And so she begins to grow beyond her first love: "She had looked at him and seen only his possibilities. Now she looked again and saw that the disappointments of his life, which would shape him, had yet to happen."

Throughout the novel, the trials of Nazneen's life in Brick Lane are cut through by letters from home, from her sister Hasina who made a love match and who was then forced to leave her violent husband and try to survive on her own, as a factory worker, a prostitute, and a maid. Without ever suggesting that the tribulations of those in the west are self-indulgent, Ali does show how the choices that face the sister in Bangladesh are so much starker than Nazneen's - choices that determine Hasina's survival as well as her happiness. I don't quite understand why Hasina's letters are written in such broken prose, since presumably she would write in her own language and her grasp of Bengali would be just as good as her sister's, but the limping rhythms of her sentences still work well, conveying her uncertain journey in and out of security.

Although Ali is dealing with such large themes, her tone remains deceptively light, and her comic touch saves her from any melodrama or soupiness. It is a nicely humane sense of comedy, that still allows her protagonists room to live and breathe, since Ali never leaves the characters with only their absurd aspects to define them. The relationship that Chanu has with the local doctor, for instance, at first seems to be purely a comic turn, in which each tries to impress the other, and then has his dignity pricked. But by the end even this relationship reaches a pitch of greater emotion, as Nazneen realises quite how much love the two men have for one another.

From time to time Ali's control of her material slips, and you may even remember, fleetingly, that this is a first novel. The relationships that Nazneen has with the women around her - her daughters and her best friend, Razia - are meant to be the ones that sustain her and bring her into a sense of true independence, and now and again they are excellently observed. Take one sharp moment where Nazneen finally plucks up courage to tell Razia about her affair, to find her deeply unimpressed: "Razia rolled her big bony shoulders. She was tired. Even her shoulders were too heavy for her today. 'In love,' she said, 'It is the English style'." But at other times Ali allows these relationships to waver away into something that is just too rosy-tinted to stand up to the harder edges of the rest of the book.

And the novel sags towards the end, where a good editor might have encouraged Ali to skip some of the episodes in which raggedy hems are neatly turned in a way that doesn't fit with the engaging openness of the earlier sections. Although I loved the ideal of freedom that drives the final scene, it felt as if Ali was trying for a more definite fictional closure than, by that time, her complicated characters can bear. But this is still the kind of novel that surprises one with its depth and dash; it is a novel that will last.

· Natasha Walter is the author of The New Feminism (Virago)


Natasha Walter

The GuardianTramp

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