Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Brick Lane by Monica Ali. 2003. French title: Sept mers et treize rivières.
Nazneen was a premature baby born in 1967 in rural Bangladesh; her survival was left to Fate. Deliberately, her mother decided not to take action to save her but let Fate decide if her baby should survive or not. This part is very important because it’s the crux of Nazneen’s education.
What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life.
Nazneen was born in a village and she and her sister Hasina hardly receive any education. In 1985, when she’s eighteen, Nazneen is sent to London to marry Chanu, a Bangladeshi emigrant. Chanu is in his forties, he’s an old man to her. She moves with him in an apartment in Tower Hamlets, near Brick Lane, London. Brick Lane relates Nazneen’s story, her slow adaptation to her new life and her new environment. She doesn’t speak English, her only contacts are with other Bengladeshi women in the apartment complex. At the beginning, Chanu works for the council as a clerk and is dissatisfied with his job. He’s educated and hopes for a promotion that never comes.
Brick Lane is a four dimensional book. The first dimension is the slow opening of Nazneen’s mind to her right to individuality. The second dimension is Chanu’s personal journey. The third one is the evolution of the neighbourhood, the Bengladeshi community and the children of the first immigrants. The last one is Hasina’s life, back in Bangladesh.
As I said before, Nazneen is a simple woman. She barely knows how to read and write, she has no opening on the world, she’s a devout. She’s passive because that’s how she was educated. She’s a woman therefore she was born to serve her husband. She cooks, cleans the apartment, cuts Chanu’s hair, nails and corn. All this is normal to her. She had no preparation for what she would find in London. She tries to adjust to her new environment as best she can. Things puzzle her:
This woman was poor and fat. To Nazneen it was unfathomable. In Bangladesh it was no more possible to be both poor and fat than to be rich and starving.
She’s introduced to respectable women of her community. Her life really shifts when her children grow up enough to bring the outside world at home and when she starts sewing at home and earning money. The whole novel is told through Nazneen’s eyes. She has difficulties to process her thoughts. The prose of the early chapters reflects her struggle. She doesn’t know how to think by herself but her being left alone in her apartment in a foreign country forces her to. Progressively, she opens her mind, lets herself assess her husband, the community around her. She dares to act, to go against fate and her ingrained acceptance of others choosing her life for her.
Her husband Chanu likes to read and to learn but isn’t really a man of action. He’s discontent because he wants to succeed. He thinks his education is his passport to success and he wants to make it in the English world. For example, he doesn’t want to rule a successful business aimed at his community, he wants to be a success among the whites.
But he was slighted. By customers, by suppliers, by superiors and inferiors. He worked hard for respect but he could not find it. There was in the world a great shortage of respect and Chanu was among the famished.
When you read Chanu speaking, although he’s bombastic, you realise he is actually cultured. Nazneen is too ignorant to realise her husband is cultured. His political analysis of the consequences of 9/11 is good. He has a good knowledge of the history of India and Great Britain. He reads intelligent papers, loves poetry. In a way, doing what he does for a job, he’s wasting his intelligence and he resents it.
Nazneen and Chanu’s mind follow adverse courses. While Nazneen slowly learns that she has a value as a person, that she can think, act and take care of herself, Chanu realises his ambitions will not be fulfilled.
Meanwhile, the neighbourhood undergoes through changes. The parents want their children to be Bengladeshi but they are English instead. Chanu tries to teach Tagore to his daughters, to infuse pride of their culture into them. It only leads to conflicts. Children crave for normality. They were born in England, they are in the English school system and they want to be English. At the same time, rampant racism doesn’t help and some have trouble building their identity. The years go by and drugs appear in the building. Foreign imams open prayer groups and preach about oppressed Muslims in the world. They teach about the jihad. The youth are stuck between their parents’ culture and their country’s culture.
To be honest, I almost abandoned Brick Lane along the way but I was interested enough to push a little farther and finish it. I ended up liking it a lot and the flaws that almost made me give up on it appeared to be strengths. There are interesting passages about immigration. Chanu has a negative analysis of the immigrant’s situation:
‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.
However, other Bengladeshis see their circumstances differently:
‘Why do you make it so complicated?’ said the doctor’s wife. ‘Assimilation this, alienation that! Let me tell you a few simple facts. Fact: we live in a Western society. Fact: our children will act more and more like Westerners. Fact: that’s no bad thing. My daughter is free to come and go. Do I wish I had enjoyed myself like her when I was young? Yes!’
Where is the truth? Somewhere in the middle. If I lived in London, I’d cook French meals and I’d want my children to speak French. As I come from a Western country, everybody would find this natural or that this bi-cultural environment is a chance for my children. If I came from Bangladesh, would people find it normal? Don’t we think in the West that our culture is superior to theirs and isn’t it why we don’t understand why immigrants don’t drop it to embrace ours? Chanu points out that when it comes to India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, we don’t hear about Tagore, we hear about floods and misery. Sadly, it’s true.
I think Monica Ali wrote a great novel. Being in Nazneen’s head is not for everyone as she can be annoying when you look at her with your Western eyes. I tried to detach myself from my cultural background to see things through her eyes. It is hard for her to allow her mind to wander out of the path her education programed her to follow. I thought it was a fair portrait of a woman’s life. Chanu is a good man. He’s much older than Nazneen but he’s kind, respectful, sober and faithful. Monica Ali could have thrown her heroin in a terrible marriage. She didn’t, it would have been too obvious. Chanu is nuanced and she didn’t make a tragedy of this arranged marriage. I appreciated that she didn’t go for the easy dramatic path.
The life of the neighbourhood seeps through Nazneen’s thoughts and it is clear that she doesn’t see or understand everything that’s going on. Monica Ali describes the fights between gangs, the search of identity for young men. For example, Karim, the young man Nazneen knows, idealises Bangladesh but he’s never been there. He sees her as the perfect Bengladeshi wife. For him, religion is a way to find his roots. He changes from sweat pants to Panjabi clothes and grows a beard. What Monica Ali describes applies to French banlieues as well for young French people coming from the North African immigration. The only difference is that they’ve all been to the country their parents or grand-parents came from. It’s not far; you can drive and take the boat to visit for the holidays, even if you don’t have much money. It’s different story to plan a trip from London to Dhaka.
Through Chanu, Monica Ali also points out the behaviour of white people. She remains factual but I think she nails it. At the same time, she doesn’t hesitate to picture the abuses inside the Bengladeshi community. How women gossip and spy on each other. How some take advantage of poorer members of the community and lend money at usurer rates. How people back home beg them to send money. Every time I wondered if Nazneen would have been happier in her home country, a letter from her sister Hasina popped in the book, reminding me that her life could have been much worse. Hasina is beaten by the husband she married out of love. Her life becomes a constant struggle when she leaves him and tries to survive by herself.
I also enjoyed this book because it is well written. Monica Ali’s prose adapts to Nazneen’s thought process. Her writing is more assured as Nazneen broadens her mind. She also has a knack for descriptions, like this:
DR AZAD HAD the misfortune of youthful hair. It was hard not to smile at his thick and shiny pelt, especially as the years had not bypassed his face. They had, in fact, trampled it. His cheeks hung slack as ancient breasts. His nose, once so neatly upturned, appeared to crumble at the end. And the puffy skin around his eyes was fit to burst.
Brick Lane has a message but it’s not black and white. Immigration is a complex issue on a human being level (Nazneen, Chanu) and on a collective level (how to “integrate” these migrants) Monica Ali shows both sides, doesn’t make accusations or portray victims of an unjust system. She states facts. Chanu’s unsuccessful life is both due to his lack of personal skills and to his origins. Thinking he wasn’t slighted because he was an immigrant would be hiding from the truth, thinking it was the only reason is equally wrong.
I value books that make me think and this one did. For another take about this book, here’s the review published in the Guardian.
PS: I hate the title of the French translation and I hate the cover of the paperback edition. It’s not faithful to the book.