A throwaway moment in Monica Ali’s new novel introduces us to a minor character, an unpublished young black author who, when he talks of struggling to sell his manuscript – a futuristic thriller about an eco-terrorist attack on a billionaire’s post-apocalyptic bolthole in New Zealand – finds himself told to try something “closer to home”; drop the sci-fi, in other words, and write about being black in Britain today.
You sense Ali speaks of what she knows; born in Dhaka and raised in England, she has arguably spent her whole career to date wriggling in the jaws of publishing’s authenticity fetish. Brick Lane, her bestselling 2003 debut about a Bangladeshi teenager’s arranged marriage in east London, earned her a reputation as a vital voice of multicultural Britain – which meant no one quite knew what to make of her next book, Alentejo Blue, tales of village life in rural Portugal. She fared better with In the Kitchen, about migrant labour in London; less so – putting it mildly - with the counterfactual shenanigans of Untold Story, in which Princess Diana, fearing assassination, fakes her own death and relocates to the US after cosmetic surgery in Brazil.
The pattern – one novel a market-pleaser, the next a curious left turn – continues with Ali’s latest book, which is set in London in the wake of the Brexit vote and centres on Yasmin, a trainee doctor who is the daughter of Bengali immigrants. She’s about to marry her colleague, Joe, who lives with his subtly domineering mother, Harriet, a feminist academic still famous for posing nude in her 70s heyday.
The setup starts off as giggly meet-the-parents comedy, with early laughs coming at the expense of the malapropisms and wonky grammar of Yasmin’s head-wobbling mother, Anisah, who mistakes a Howard Hodgkin painting on Harriet’s wall for a long-cherished childhood artwork by Joe. For his part, Joe faces embarrassment of his own when his mother’s self-congratulatory liberalism all but corners his fiancee into planning a Muslim wedding against her will.
As Ali pokes fun at the unwitting ironies of one-size-fits-all feminism, the easy gags soon give way to the drama of a busy plot rife with secrets and lies. Yasmin gets a shock when a nurse on her ward lifts the lid on Joe’s double life, foreshadowed in segments told from his therapist’s point of view. An even more seismic upset follows the revelation that her parents’ cross-class marriage was a murkier affair than let on by the family lore of an unarranged love match.
We stick chiefly to Yasmin’s perspective, her self-image slowly unravelling once she begins to grasp the nature of the shadow cast by her increasingly hard-drinking father, also a doctor. Private turmoil is amplified by ever-present workplace aggro, as Ali portrays a hard-pressed NHS prey to dodgy contractors and hidebound hierarchies, with a whistleblower subplot involving overmedicated geriatrics.
There’s also lashings of sex, thanks to Yasmin’s suave older superior, an outlet for tit-for-tat infidelity; more lurid turns involve Joe’s relationship with his mother, whose readiness to walk in on him in the shower (among other liberties) further brings into relief Yasmin’s body-conscious inhibitions, before paving the way for a gnarly Oedipal storyline.
If the novel’s mickey-taking of Harriet as a superannuated pin-up of second-wave feminism feels especially pointed, it may be relevant that Germaine Greer once wrote sharply on the row over Brick Lane, suggesting non-Asian readers trusted its portrayal of British Bangladeshis simply because Ali had a Bangladeshi father, a fact that counted for less “in the eyes of British Bangladeshis”... some of whom “did not recognise themselves”.
Either way, Harriet’s story, like everyone’s here, is ultimately about sympathy, not score-settling. Even Ali’s broadest strokes – as when Anisah falls for a lesbian performance artist – butter us up for a sucker-punch climax in which a variety of buried sorrows come to light. We all, the novel seems to say, have our cross to bear, even overweening mums and dads, and (as Yasmin ends up thinking) “life is not simple”: a last-page banality brought to life by dint of the accumulated backstory generously granted to each member of the book’s two families.
A topically freighted tale of premarital tension told with easy-reading propulsion, Love Marriage has the air of a surefire hit, and at the very least deserves to underwrite whatever curveball Ali has up her sleeve for next time: roll on the eco-thriller.
• Love Marriage by Monica Ali is published by Virago (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply