Monday, October 06, 2003

My Big Fat Brick Lane Problem

Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Scribner. $25.00. 369 pages.

Brick Lane has captured the English reading world. This debut novel by Monica Ali, about a young Muslim woman whose arranged marriage pitches her into the freedom and turmoil of London, became a critical and commercial success, and was unsurprisingly nominated recently for the Booker Prize.

What does surprise me is that it’s only fitfully engaging, and that big chunks of it are rather mysteriously dull. Pinpointing the exact problem gave me a fair amount of trouble, as all my objections kept coming back marked “Return to Sender.” I couldn’t say that it was clumsily-written or poorly-conceived, exactly – indeed, it’s impressively self-assured and mature for a first novel -- only that a certain elusive torpor set in whenever I picked it up.

Was I the problem? Maybe. Even as I was dozing through the book, I could imagine a lot of people seeing in it a perfect distillation of the immigrant experience. I thought it was like meeting the world’s most beautiful, charming, intelligent and caring woman – like, say, the woman in the author’s photograph -- and discovering you have no chemistry. Masochistically, I read it again. The second date proved no more enjoyable than the first, but it was easier to chart the lapses.

It starts promisingly enough. Nazneen Ahmed, raised in a devout Muslim community in Bangladesh, has long been nurtured in the belief that fate is not to be questioned, and neither is her parents’ choice of a husband for her. When Nazneen finds herself married off to Chanu, a roly-poly blowhard over twice her age, it quickly becomes apparent that Amma and Abba have bitten off more fate than she can chew. Chanu whisks her away to London, where he has already spent 16 years trying to break through the English caste system and find someone as impressed with him as he is with himself. Chanu discourages every dream of Nazneen’s, expects her to stay home, keep her mouth shut, and wait on him hand and, literally, foot -- by cutting his corns while he discourses on whatever subject crosses his mind.

The couple’s new home in the Bengali community near Brick Lane is no prize either, as old world culture is adulterated with the new world dangers of racism and drugs. Lest Nazneen dwell too much on her own fate, misery provides more than enough company, such as her friend Razia, who becomes enviably widowed but is unable to control her children. There is, also, the example of her younger sister, Hasina, back home, whose “love marriage” goes as bad as everyone figured it would. While Nazneen is both distressed and enchanted by secular London, Hasina’s life back in Bangladesh is a sobering reminder of what happens to one who has “kicked against fate.” In long letters to Nazneen, Hasina describes a life that will become little more than a series of disasters: banishment, an abusive husband – whom she flees – poverty, rape, and employment as a nursemaid in the home of a vapid rich woman. Hasina learns her lesson, and, like her sister, greets every new humiliation with thanks that things aren’t worse than they already are.

But Nazneen is also possessed by a “djinn,” or imp, that makes her yearn to be free. When Chanu is between jobs and Nazneen takes work as a seamstress, she risks hell by having an affair with a handsome young Muslim radical, a relationship that both torments and emboldens her further.

As the years pile up – stretching from 1985 to the aftermath of September 11, 2001 – and the family expands, east and west exert an opposite pull. Where Nazneen has wanted to leave London ever since she arrived, she flourishes as a woman. Chanu, who has insisted on plugging away in London until he makes his mark on it, becomes increasingly bitter over his prospects, the Westernization of the couple's two daughters, and the growing racial division in the streets. Either way, they're stuck in place, slaves of London who are too heavily in debt to Mrs. Islam, the local loan shark, to ever break free until Nazneen makes a decisive act of her own.

Although Ali deals with the usual themes of Indian life in London – racial violence, fundamentalism, and assimilation – she’s closer in tone to early Anne Tyler than early Naipaul. She observes with a sharp but forgiving eye. Early in the book, at a disastrous dinner party, Nazneen watches as Chanu hopelessly makes a fool of himself before Azad, the local medical doctor: Chanu “cleared his throat, although it was already clear. Dr. Azad looked at Nazneen and, without meaning to, she returned his gaze so that she was caught in a complexity of looks, given and returned, which said something about her husband that she ought not to be saying.” Curiously, Chanu, in all his naivete and self-satisfaction, is more interesting when seen through Nazneen’s eyes than Nazneen ever is herself. Nazneen even notices the unhappiness in her husband’s eyes: “What are we doing here, they said, what are we doing on this round, jolly face?" Likewise, Mrs. Islam is one of those perfectly Dickensian types who put on a show of death’s-door poverty while she bleeds her victims dry. Arriving for her weekly payment, she produces an “aura of the sick bed,” lugging a black bag, coughing into the handkerchief she holds over her face, dousing herself with something called “Ralgex heat spray,” consuming cough syrup by the bottle, popping mints – and offering no mercy. She even speaks in a way that “cut words to a fine point and launched them decisively.”

Unfortunately, both Nazneen and Hasina drag the story down, which is too bad, because they are the story. Nazneen’s averageness maxes out quickly; she’s a little too limited to be consistently interesting, and her personal journey of self-discovery doesn’t arrive anywhere we couldn’t have anticipated. Hasina’s pidgin English becomes a wearisomely precocious tic. Hasina is one of those cases where an author has tried to make a character both eloquent and ignorant, and the result feels so forced that you find yourself losing any sympathy for her plight. It’s only when these two recede from view that the novel has any spark to it. The sisters are, also, too obviously the author’s dummies; you can see her lips moving when they speak, and what she says isn’t, in the long run, all that illuminating.

It may be that Ali’s magic works best at a distance, that she’s just better at observing people from the outside rather than trying to inhabit them from within. Her virtues are real, but they’re only spottily displayed in this frustrating book.

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