By Chris Lehmann
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
By Monica Ali
Scribner. 369 pp. $25
Monica Ali's feverishly hyped debut novel -- which landed the author on Granta's list of Britain's top 20 young writers solely on the strength of its unpublished manuscript -- is distinguished by how ordinary it is. That is no insult: Women writers in England who hail from the Indian subcontinent labor under what might be called the "White Teeth" syndrome. They are expected to lay heavy stress on the boisterous, exotic and culturally polyglot cast of immigrant life in London, as Zadie Smith did with the publication of her celebrated debut novel in 2000.
But where "White Teeth" teemed with a cast of characters careening across one another's lives in tangled subplots, "Brick Lane" is a stoutly simple tale, chronicling the fortunes of a Bangladeshi woman named Nazneen, who immigrates to England to consummate the marriage her father has arranged with a middle-aged civil servant she has never met named Chanu. He, too, is a first-generation Bangladeshi immigrant, and the lore in Nazneen's village -- which her father has clearly endorsed -- holds that all such men are successes, or "Big Men," graced with intelligence, charm and wealth.
It is soon plain enough to Nazneen -- a very young 18 at the time she journeys to London -- that Chanu is no Big Man. He lives in an East End public housing complex called Tower Hamlets. His apartment is in dubious repair and crammed with garish mismatched furniture. And Chanu's head is crammed with an endless succession of plans to get ahead: to win a promotion at work, to curry favor with other "respectable type" Bangladeshis, to accumulate degrees and certificates from adult education institutions, in everything from economics to art history.
Her new husband and surroundings leave Nazneen by turns dismayed and bewildered, and it scarcely helps matters that Chanu forbids her to leave the house most days and expects her to trim the corns on his feet each night. But like many Muslim women, she is conditioned to accept her fate uncomplainingly, and so as time passes, she settles into the rounds of traditional housekeeping and motherhood -- they have two daughters, Bibi and Shahana -- while cautiously adapting herself to the strange new contours of life as an outsider in London.
And Nazneen comes by her fatalism as something more than simply a cultural and religious legacy; her very birth, as Ali recounts, was a veritable fable on the power of fate: Her mother delivered her prematurely, and to all appearances Nazneen was stillborn. She stirred to life in the very moment that a village midwife pronounced her dead. And even after her birth, as her mother loses no opportunity to remind her, Nazneen rallied to sustain herself only when her mother refused any intervention from midwives and medical professionals and placed her destiny entirely in the hands of Allah.
If that weren't enough of a spur to stay put and passively endorse the verdict of fate, Nazneen also has before her the cautionary counterexample of her sister, Hasina, who eloped to carry out a "love marriage" with a village tough, and then fled the marriage when he began beating her. We read of Hasina's travails as Nazneen does, in episodic letters posted from the various points she provisionally settles into over the course of her glum, downward slide to the lower depths of Bangladesh society.
The novel's prominently earmarked big themes of fate and free choice might easily have translated into some paint-by-numbers typecasting, whereby glaringly symbolic characters -- Chanu the patriarch, Hasina the romantic libertine -- serve as the occasion for Ali to deal out appropriately instructive fates of her own devising. Fortunately, however, Ali is much too supple and clear-eyed a writer to succumb to such broad scripting. Indeed, most of "Brick Lane" is devoted to Nazneen's gradual unlearning of most of her life's designated object lessons. As Ali alerts us early in the narrative, Nazneen comes to be "as startled by her own agency as an infant who waves a clenched fist and strikes itself upon the eye."
As events come to upend Nazneen's constitutional fatalism, so too do they undermine Chanu's dreams of never-ending upward mobility: His promotion is never forthcoming, and his extravagant pride compels him to resign his post, sparking his own descent into an anything but "respectable" livelihood as a cabdriver. Larger forces, too, impinge on Nazneen's cloistered life, notably when the household's mounting economic distress propels her further into the world to take in piecemeal sewing work -- and when the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks stir many Bangladeshi residents of Tower Hamlets into painful new reckonings with their Islamic identity. Ali renders these bigger events, too, in plainly wrought but affecting fashion. When Nazneen -- spurred in no small part by a growing infatuation with a young Muslim leader who brings in sewing work from his father's business -- starts attending the meetings of a fledgling local group of Islamic activists called the Bengal Tigers, she is not stirred to fire-breathing militancy. Rather, the grim and politicized tenor of the gatherings serves to make her feel her private distresses more acutely: "When she walked the anxious tightrope between [her] children and their father, when she was disquieted by her undisciplined mind or worried about her sister -- now she felt the smallness of it all. She mistook the sad weight of longing in her stomach for sorrow, and she read in the night of occupiers and orphans, of Intifada and Hamas."
Ali, in short, refuses to confine her characters in the tidy boxes that fate or immigrant life or global politics would seem to dictate they occupy. She will not even make the ever-striving-and-failing, comically deluded Chanu her own fictional sport; when his marriage to Nazneen inevitably creaks and gives way, Ali supplies a genuinely moving portrait of the husband's panicked distress and desperate, if insufficient, love for his family.
In other words, in a feverishly fragmenting and often character-resistant fictional landscape, "Brick Lane" manages to do many of the things that fiction does best: to create a fully rounded, satisfyingly complicated world of its own that opens onto our own lives, provoking us to measure ourselves by its terms rather than vice versa. Ali's novel also has some notable shortcomings: Like many books that revolve around a central character struggling to make up her mind, it can grow frustratingly longsome, and for all the inventive care that Ali shows with language, she also tosses off some unwieldy and/or cliched metaphors. But in all the ways that fiction matters most, "Brick Lane" is no ordinary achievement.