Imagine your fate has been decided for you from day one.
A teenage Nazneen comes to London from Bangladesh as part of an arranged marriage. Her husband Chanu, who is twice her age as well as twice her weight, is burdened by a thirst for knowledge he can put to no practical use other than impose it on his family. They both try to maintain this arrangement through the early death of a son, the later birth of daughters, the debt owed to the usurer Mrs Islam, the diverting cynicism of neighbour Razia, and of course the charisma of the radical Karim.
Like many first novels Brick Lane is drawn from Monica Ali’s own background (if not direct experience) where intergenerational tensions in immigrant communities prevailed (Ali says the book ‘chose her’). There is no doubting its ambition; it covers issues of race, gender, age, and religion, and there is much to admire in its scale, ironically in a claustrophobic setting – a small flat in a small part of London. In the microcosmic portrayal of a small community you can really sense the changes facing them; from the leaflets of local racists to the perceived threat facing the global ummah, a tension that divides those in the ‘Bengal Tigers’.
Brick Lane was met with great critical acclaim when first published in 2003. In fact Ali was included in Granta’s list of best Young British Novelists before the book (her first) had even come out. Most literary critics lauded the book for many of the reasons I have outlined (its scope, ambition, subject). But Ali has said she suspects it also came from their belief that this was a hidden world, whereas in reality it was a world very close to them, it just hadn’t been popularised in such a way before (or allowed to be). Hari Kunzru wryly said that Ali was that year’s ‘ethnic novelist’, “You are allowed one a year in Britain. I was last year’s! Zadie Smith a year or two before” (http://tinyurl.com/729ncuy). Authors were divided, most notably Germaine Greer and Salman Rushdie, but oddly not until the film came out (http://tinyurl.com/8yqeqnz). It was then she was criticised for the portrayal of the Bengali community; that it wasn’t drawn from her own direct personal experience. However, this of itself is not a reason to criticise a novelist, after all it is meant to be fiction. Ali says she didn’t set out to make an overt political message, and much of the book’s success was very much based on its explication of a changing London and a changing world.
But for all its radicalism of topic and later of response, this is not a radical book. In format it reads as a traditional piece of social realism, on a topic not widely read by western readers before. And for me that is its weakness; like many social realist books it is bleak, there is not a great deal to be uplifted by as you go through it. The portrayal of the working classes is a horror story of unremitting struggle, against authorities and more problematically amongst themselves. Class is the one thing not facing change in Brick Lane; shifting ethnic, gender and intergenerational tensions pervade the book, but class is often the elephant in the room. And it is here where much of the criticism for Ali comes from. Protesters of the book claimed that Ali was influenced by her father, a non-Sylheti from Dhaka, and the characters depict Sylhetis as “dirty little monkeys” who are: “Uneducated. Illiterate. Close-minded.” (http://tinyurl.com/7xbdq2p).
When asked what the book was about, Monica Ali said* it is “a meditation on fate and free will,” and undoubtedly this is the book’s main strength. Nazneen is constrained by the certainty of her own fate (‘it is Gods will’) and belief that she doesn’t have the ‘power to choose’, which is only disrupted when she begins sewing garments to pay off Chanu’s debt to Mrs Islam. Ali was inspired by the work of Naila Kabeer on Bangladeshi garment workers, who through self-employment were given a certain amount of self-determination, sometimes more than their counterparts in London (http://tinyurl.com/6sp9d9q). But it is not only Nazneen; Chanu, Karim, Hasina and to some extent Razia, all also struggle with fate and free will.
So like many books of ambition and scale, expectations are raised and opinions divided. Please offer your own opinion of Brick Lane, but keep in mind your personal struggle with fate and free will, and let’s see where it leads us.
(*the references to Monica Ali’s discussion of the book are taken from a University of Warwick discussion in 1994 – before the controversy from the making of the film, http://tinyurl.com/7fzmquu).