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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.

Ali_Brick_LaneNazneen 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.

Ali_sept_mersI 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.

  1. August 6, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Doubt I’ll read the book but I enjoyed the film version which I saw a few years ago. I didn’t expect to like the film and expected it to be sentimental or mushy.

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    • August 8, 2013 at 11:43 am

      I’d like to watch the movie. As always, I wonder how the director managed to show the subtlety of feelings on screen. Taken too literally, it can become a stupid movie.
      The book is much more subtle than the story in A Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian.

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  2. August 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    I’m still not convinced I would really like it. I found the writing too simplistic. I see now that it made sense but still . . . Honestly, I found it slightly artificial. Maybe if I try it again at another time and would read more than just 100 pages, I would end up liking it as well. I’d like to watch the movie.

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    • August 8, 2013 at 11:45 am

      You know what I think: there are too many great books you’d love out there to waste time on one you’re not attracted to.
      Yes, the style is simplistic but it goes with Nazneen’s mind. It would be interesting to read another of Monica Ali’s book to compare the style and see how much was voluntarily simplistic in Brick Lane.

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  3. August 7, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    I think it’s seen as a bit of a contemporary classic. It’s interesting how the prose adapts to reflect her widening worldview, and indeed the act of imagination in portraying that worldview. I appreciate Monica Ali likely knew people in that position, but that doesn’t diminish it as a creative act.

    Will you read more by her do you think?

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    • August 8, 2013 at 11:57 am

      I haven’t read anything about the writer –as usual– but I guessed she knew what she was talking about. I liked that she was moderate in her vision of things and that she managed to interweave the story of a character with political and sociological insights.

      I’ll check out her other books but I fear this one might be her best one, I don’t know why.

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  4. August 9, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Nice review, Emma! I haven’t read this book, but I remember it creating waves when it was shorlisted for the Booker prize. Nice to know that it shows an interesting perspective of the Bangladeshi immigrant community in England. From your review it looks like Monica Ali got her observations on immigrant issues spot on. I think immigrant parents, though they enjoy the freedom of their new country, start having a problem when their children want to enjoy that freedom and want to decide on things like whether to be religious, what career to pursue and whom to get married to without getting their parents’ buy-in. Sometimes immigrant parents are stuck in a time warp and they think their homeland hasn’t changed since they left it, and so their value system continues to be conservative reflecting the time they moved out, while in reality their home country has changed and has become different today. I think immigrant parents will continue to face these challenges of adapting to a new country. I don’t know whether this will ever ever change. Karim is an interesting character. There are many people like that, who have a mythical perspective of their parents’ homeland without ever having been there. Nice to know that Nazneen’s and Chanu’s characters are well done and realistically portrayed. I especially liked the way Nazneen changes from someone who accepts things the way they are, to someone who learns to think on her own, realizes her rights and evolves as a person. I somehow feel that Nazneen’s sister Hasina’s story seems to be tacked in and looks a bit separate from the rest of the book. Did it feel that way to you?

    Thanks for this wonderful review. I don’t know whether I will read this book, but I am glad that it has made into a movie. Maybe I will watch the movie one day.

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    • August 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      Why did it create waves? Because of the simple style or because of the theme?
      I agree with what you write about immigrant parents. There’s also the myth of the “return”, the idea that they are only temporarily in the new country. So they don’t want to change because they’re going back. Of course, most of them never go back. Probably because their children’s country is the new country.

      I wonder how internet changes the situation. It’s easier to keep in touch with what’s happening in your home country, easier to maintain contacts with family and friends, at least when you come from a free country. It works both ways, the migrants know better what to expect, especially if they immigrate to get married or if they are educated.

      Hasina’s story bored me not because of the story in itself but because it is told through letters written in a bad English (I don’t know why since she wrote in Bengali) and it was painful to read.

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      • August 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm

        I think it created waves because of the theme and the fact that Monica Ali was (probably) the first author of Bangladeshi origin to be shortlisted for the Booker prize. I liked what you said about the ‘myth’ of the return. The internet is definitely something which changes the situation. With email, Skype and the rest, I think if we are at home, it doesn’t matter which country we live in. Sorry to know that Hasina’s story wasn’t so interesting for you. It does look that way. I don’t know whether Monica Ali tacked that in to make a point – to compare the lives of women in Bangladesh with those living in the UK.

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  5. August 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    The complexity of the charters and themes sounds appealing. One thing that struck me about your commentary was the character of Chanu. I think that many authors would have made him one dimensional and unsympathetic.

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    • August 10, 2013 at 3:09 pm

      You’re right. Chanu is a great character. He’s ridiculous at times but also intelligent and kind. Their marriage isn’t that bad; they genuinely care for each other.

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  6. acommonreaderuk
    February 3, 2014 at 10:04 am

    This is a very fine review of an excellent book. (in my opinion, a classic). When I read it soon after it was published, I felt it opened the doors on an immigrant community which I thought of before as very mysterious. I found tremendous sympathy for the problems of the community which Monica Ali expressed so well, and her depiction of the personal growth of Nazneen was very skilfully done. As I drive through South London now, I see the countless ethnic people I see in a new way – this is what fiction can do for you!

    Since the rise of fundamentalism their seems to be a retreat of some Muslims into their community and Brick Lane is today noted for groups of fundamentalist men who patrol the area telling young women to dress modestly and trying to recruit their boyfriends into various extremist groups. One noteworthy campaign is the Sharia Project which tries to stop shop-keepers selling alcohol (see http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/12/12/sharia-project-alcohol_n_4431687.html ).

    It is the sheer humanity of Monica Ali’s writing which impressed me the most. This is a “humanistic” book which sees behind the veil to the real people within, their thoughts and concerns.

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    • February 3, 2014 at 10:19 pm

      I love to have comments on an older billet.
      I thought that Brick Lane was enlightening. She’s not judging anyone. She just describes the life of a woman and all the rest comes around it. I can’t even imagine how it could be for these women, shipped abroad to marry a strange man in a strange country. She pictures very well how the fundamentalists take roots in Nazreen’s community. It’s not new. Naghib Mahfouz describes the same thing in The Cairo Trilogy.

      Now that I think of it, it’s the same kind of book as Death in Beirut, that I read later. (Highly recommended, btw.)

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  1. September 8, 2013 at 7:18 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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