Nazneen is forced into an arranged marriage with a much older man whose expectations of life are miserably low. When they flee the oppression of their Bangladeshi village for a high-rise block in the East End, she finds herself cloistered and dependent on her husband. It soon becomes apparent that of the two, she is the real survivor and more able to deal with the ways of the world and the vagaries of human behavior. Through her friendship with another Asian girl, she begins to understand the unsettling ways of her new homeland.
The author also has a lot to say about the situation of unskilled immigrant workers and about educated immigrants who can't find a decent job. Living conditions, racial issues, women's issues, religious and political issues are all dealt with in a fairly smooth fashion. It was interesting to read the letters from the younger sister who stays in Bangladesh and compare the two situations.
I could give this book another star for the writing, which was good. I enjoyed some of the supporting characters very much. However, the beginning of the book was laborious and could have been tightened up quite a bit. The author used nearly 400 pages leaning toward the point but stopping just shy of it over and over, and it became a bit exhausting as did listening to Chanu. The positive and self-determined ending was rather abrupt, but felt good. I'd like to see a sequel that just tells a great story about a group of Bangladeshi women who go into business together.
At the tender age of eighteen, Nazneen's life is turned upside
down. After an arranged marriage to a man twenty years her elder she exchanges her Bangladeshi village for a block of flat's in London's east end. She rebels to her situation and the restrictions put upon her by sneaking out in the daytime to defy her husband. Aside from her struggles throughout the story she receives letters from her sister back in India who is in a dire situation with an abusive husband whom she eventually leaves with her lover and is forced to
live on the streets. Nazneen however has problems of her own and begins an affair with a young radical who brings sewing to her at home whilst her husband is at work.Nazneens husband is basically a good man but is frustrated about never achieving any status in his
new country and eventually returns to India without Nazneen at the close of the novel.
This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. I
enjoyed the story taking me into a life and culture so far removed from my own .
The book gave me a window on a world normally invisible to me, the world of the non-English speaking, home bound, first generation immigrant, wife.
Although the novel interested me for its description of an alien world, it is really about Nazneen's journey from fatalism (and the story of "How I Was Left to my Fate") to assertion, and the way in which this encapsulates the generational journey, from the world of her mother, a world of victimhood, despair and suicide, to the world of her daughter who would run away rather than be returned to Bangladesh.
Her affair interested me, I thought it was a subtle take on an age old story, Nazneen seems to fall into it with her usual passivity, and seems to be being used, and yet she gets what she wants from it and, in the end, it leaves him shocked and her unmoved.
Monica Ali is able to produce humour as well as tragedy and pathos - everything is beautifully written. I loved the Bengal Tigers. This group of wannabe radicals descend into the farcical bickering so typical of all the student politics I remember. All the debates end up in wrangles over what has been authorised by the publications committee or whether DJ Kushi and MC Marak will be allowed to hijack the next demo and turn it into a disco.
The characters in the book are skillfully drawn Chanu, Mrs Islam, Dr Azad, and Mrs Azad are my favourites - Ali's neat, brief descriptions of character fill the book - a favourite:
"...he was slighted... ...he worked hard for respect, but could not find it. There was in the world a great shortage of respect and Chanu was amongst the famished."
I'm looking forward to reading Monica Ali's next book
I found Brick Lane to be a book of 2 halves. The first half took me about 2 weeks to read, it was hard going, at times boring and I can understand why some people gave up on it early. Fortunately, the second half took me a few days to read and was far more interesting. It is a slow moving book and I imagine it is meant to be so. A kind of documentary of one womans’ transformation from girl to woman whilst seeking to find a place in a Western world she is far removed from.
On the whole, I enjoyed Brick Lane. It passed a good few days for me and was worth the read, if not the hype. Having said this I found myself uninvolved and having very little empathy for characters I felt I should have. I found them often one-dimensional despite their lives full of woes and sadness. I found very little affection, warmth and love in the telling of the story. Maybe this was meant to be so.
We see only brief glimpses of warmth in her thoughts of home and in the letters her sister wrote (and yes, I agree with some criticisms that the broken English the letters were written in were distracting). Her husband and children seemed to merely tolerate her. Her lover, Karim, also seems to merely tolerate her and, like their ‘secret’ meetings, the relationship is kept under wraps.
I found that Nazneen had very little to say throughout the book until she developed later on. I noticed that in the first half her dialogue could be penned in one page and everyone around her spoke AT her, rather than with her. She appeared to me as a soundboard for everyone else’s thoughts. She kept all things to herself, secrets, lies and worries. This was even more noticeable in the letters Hasina wrote to her and the ones she wrote back, or tired to write. Hasina often wrote long and interesting letters to her sister and showed a great deal of insight into what was happening around her and a self awareness whereas Nazneens’ letters would barely scratch a paragraph.
As the book moved forward Nazneen become more vocal and I feel was an intentional part of Ali’s writing to show the development of her character. That said, I felt that other characters had more to offer and drew me in more. Nazneens’ eldest daughter Shahana, her friend Razia and Dr Azad’s wife who made all but a brief appearance, all seemed more real to me. Karim seemed almost dreamlike, lacking substance and their relationship just didn’t gel for me.
One thing I feel that is created rather well in Brick Lane, is the environment within which Nazneen lived. The description of her home, the council estate, plaster coming off the walls, the groups congregating around dog crap strewn streets, the desperation and lack of hope amongst some, all conjured images that were described so well by Ali. She contrasts these with glimpses of the poverty that Hasina was living amongst in Bangladesh. Yet somehow there seemed more hope there and Hasina, no matter what she had gone through, always seemed a little more hopeful and happier than her sister, possibly illustrating how poverty is relative and often spiritual poverty can, in a way, be more damning than monetary poverty. It was this and the sidelined characters that seemed more tangible and interesting to me.
But perhaps that is as it is. Nazneen feeling unhappy, unloved, used, disenfranchised, displaced and, to a degree, invisible. Ali certainly does leave me with this impression of the central character in this book and this I believe is one thing to be recognised and applauded.
I rather liked it. I thought it was imperfect in many respects, and some parts of it did not ring quite true. But I thought that most of it dealt accurately with the immigrant-from-the-subcontinent's experience, and that much of the interpersonal relationships were realistic.
I know some people (far too many, actually) in similar marital situations to that of Nazneen and Chanu. How realistic the affair with the much younger boy was, I cannot answer, but then again I have heard of stranger things. In fact I feel as if I have met the real-life counterparts of most of the immigrant characters are concerned -- sometimes many times over.
Odd pieces about the Hasina's life in Bangladesh and some of the situations there seemed to jar, which I attributed to the fact that Monica Ali did not spend much of her life there if I recall correctly. Many other situations in those parts rang true though, although I would be first to admit that my familiarity is with India rather than Bangladesh.
The things that made this an imperfect novel for me were among others the gaps in development and the occasional straying into a different novel. By this I mean that there are bits that seem to belong to a novel of an entirely different genre and style, bits that seem to come straight out of a Rohinton Mistry or Salman Rushdie novel, or additional sections of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.
So, in my opinion a flawed work, but one with real worth as well. Perhaps over-ambitious, trying to cram absolutely everything into this work, her first novel. I would probably not have selected this as a Booker shortlist pick, except in the sense of recognizing the talent and encouraging it. Some stern editing and refining might have turned this into a much better book. But overall, well worth the time to read it.
In the end, the wife has an affair with a radical Islamaist who lives in their project. The whole affair plot fail to become believable and the book suffers. Finally, as with many young authors, great writing, great characters, mediocre plot.
The text of the sister's letters is written as if it has been translated from native language to English, which is an interesting, albeit often annoying, technique. Hard sometimes to read it but I think makes for a better feel for the difference in the two women.
Often I thought of how many Americans are about learning more about the world outside their own doors when I read how naive Nazneen's understanding of the world is. I wish many Americans could read this and see themselves. Maybe they would stop being so blind to the world around them.
Ali's writing was nice, but I found myself constantly wanting more out of her characters. It wasn't a bad read, but it didn't really end up impressing me.