Any books about Indian culture are right up my alley so I was really looking forward to reading Brick Lane by Monica Ali. This book was shortlisted for the 2003 Booker prize and was critically acclaimed when it first came out.
The book opens in Bangladesh and chronicles the life of Nazneen, a seemingly typical village girl who ends up in London after her parents arrange her marriage to a Bengali immigrant, Chanu, who is twice her age. The first half of the book portrays their traditional relationship – Nazneen is the dutiful housewife who recognizes that she is married to an intellectual “wanna-be” who will never really make anything of himself – but she never questions that this is the way her life was meant to be. She cooks for him, listens to his prattling on, and even cuts the corns on his toes every night. Nazneen is an extreme fatalist. The book actually opens with the story of Nazneen’s birth at which the midwife and her relatives thought she would die because she didn’t nurse for a few days. Rather than take her to the doctor, her mother’s response was that it is God’s will. This sets the tone for the the first three decades of Nazneen’s life. Nazneen never leaves Brick Lane, which is a Bangladeshi enclave in London, and spends her days with her fellow Bangladeshi neighbors trying to raise her 2 daughters who struggle with wanting to be typical British teenagers but being raised by ultra-traditional parents. Nazneen’s first child is a son who dies when he is about 2 years old. I was frustrated by the fact that this episode in their life was described at length but the reader never found out what was wrong with the child and what he died of. I guess this was just another example of God’s will.
Suddenly (or at least it seemed sudden to me), Nazneen takes a younger lover, Karim, a Muslim idealogue, and suddenly has a complete change of personality. The second half of the book explores Nazneen’s personal growth as she realizes that she feels truly alive when she is with Karim and that she can make decisions independent of her husband. I felt that the author did not delve deep enough into why Nazneen started having this affair. Clearly this was the catalyst which changed the rest of her life . Nazneen comes into her own throughout the remainder of the book and culminates with Chanu returning to Bangladesh without his wife and kids.
Throughout the book are many great characters who almost border on being caricatures (the moneylender, Mrs. Islam; Dr. Azad, Chanu’s best friend who is a true intellectual; Hasina, the rebellious sister who ends up an indentured servant; and even Razia who is so Anglofied that she always wears a Union Jack sweatshirt). All of these characters contribute to the great storytelling in this book.
What I enjoyed most was Ali’s rich, descriptive writing style. Certainly I had no prior knowledge of life in Bangladesh but the by end of the book I could imagine sitting in the dirt road of her village with the smell of cattle and chickens next to me or living in an immigrant enclave and never going further than 2 blocks from my home. Ali’s description of Nazneen’s cooking made me crave Indian food on many a night while I was reading the book. I always find that the best books are those rich in characters and describe lifestyles of which I have no knowledge. Brick Lane certainly fit that bill.