Brick Lane is the debut novel of Monica Ali, one of a growing number of British novelists from immigrant backgrounds who are coming of age as writers. It is against an immigrant background that Ali sets her complex and bleak narrative about the life of Bangladeshi women who live in Tower Hamlets, East London. These women are sequestered in council tower blocks and earn money through home produced textile piece work. Ali explores what life is like for them – women sent to live in London as brides for Bangladeshi men seeking suitable brides, that is, compliant and traditional, wives, but ultimately strangers in a land they barely manage to explore.
Ali tells her tale through the life of Nazneen, a woman from a rural village in Bangladesh. She has come to London to marry Chanu, a man who had emigrated to Britain with high, but increasing unrealised and finally dashed hopes of success in the Civil Service. The novel is not a linear exploration of Nazneen’s life but instead focuses on various times in her life – her birth, the first few years of her marriage to Chanu, the later years of her marriage – and it is full of Proustian flash backs to her childhood and remembered conversations with her mother. At the same time it offers in counterpoint a parallel tale of the fate of her beloved sister Hasina who left home to pursue a ‘love’ marriage that fails, after which she lives a precarious existence dependent on the benevolence of employers and Nazneen’s financial support. Told through badly written letters (why is one sister less able to compose her thoughts than the other?) this is the least successful aspect of Brick Lane and distracts from the main narrative.
Ali is on surer footing when the action reverts to Tower Hamlets. She is particularly good at populating her narrative with lively secondary characters: Dr Azad, chameleon, formal and aloof, who is married to a woman who has taken to English ways (beer and cigarettes) with gusto; the evil moneylender Mrs Islam whom Nazneen resists and who finally gets her just desserts; the chain-smoking tattoo lady across the courtyard; and Razia, her only real friend, whose slaughter-man husband dies when a frozen cow falls on him, and whose son is revealed as an heroin addict and dealer.
Ali is also successful in evoking the claustrophobic world in which Nazneen finds herself; Nazneen is always looking out of windows onto action; in dark corridors moving between her flat and that of a friend; and when, early in the novel she leaves the house for a random walk through Tower Hamlets, prompted by a letter from Hasina telling her that she was leaving her husband, her separateness from larger society is underlined by getting herself lost. Earlier, Chanu said: “‘Why should you go out? If you go out ten people will say “I saw her walking on the street.” And I will look like a fool. Personally I don’t mind if you go out but these people are so ignorant. What can I do?’”
This comment captures a number of elements of Brick Lane – lives lived under the close and judgemental scrutiny of the ‘community’ whose village ways have been translated to but unaffected by London, and the puffed up self-importance of Chanu. At the beginning he is an unsympathetic man given to declamation instead of conversation, to talking down to his wife, and to stifling any sign of independent thought or action she might have. But during the course of the narrative, as he wrestles with his eldest and favourite daughter’s rebellion, his wife’s infidelity, his growing conviction that the family should return to Bangladesh, and his dignified parting from Nazneen, Chanu almost achieves a tragic grandeur.
But this is Nazneen’s story and Ali plots the arc of her development that takes us from village to liberation via an arranged marriage, passive resistance within it, motherhood, and work, infidelity and finally separation. Infatuation is the key that unlocks a fresh beginning for Nazneen. Her passionate, overwhelming affair with the much younger Karim – the man who brings and collects her piece work for his father’s business – forces her to confront what it is that she wants from life, a process of decision making that ends with her rejecting Karim’s offer of marriage, and her staying in Britain with her children rather than returning to Bangladesh with Chanu. For much of its 400-odd pages Brick Lane is grim to read with little to lighten the load other than the well-observed discord between father and daughter. The book ends on a note of hope with Razia’s affirmation that in England anything is possible but little in the foregoing pages gives readers much cause for optimism.