I am at page 156 of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and I simply can’t go on. I can’t read one more page about the miserable apartment-ridden life of Nazneen and her arranged marriage to the buffoon Chanu or their unhappy kids or the terrible life of Nazneen’s sister Hasina or the boring gossip by and about Mrs. Islam and Razia.
I’m disappointed. I’ve wanted to read this book for some time. So I finally bought a copy and cracked it open. I feel like I’m supposed to really like this book. But reading it is drudgery. It’s very well-written. Ali writes with grace and an attention to detail and characterization that is admirable and clearly places her among the talented. But there is absolutely no inertia in the story. I don’t feel the characters have any particular drive and there seems to be little at stake.
But don’t take my word. Here are some of the glowing blurbs for this book:
“Like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Ali’s debut novel is set in multicultural London; but unlike Smith’s antic, sprawling vision, Ali’s is cool, confined, and unsparing. Meticulously following the circumscribed life of Nazneen, a sheltered, devoutly Muslim, married Bangladeshi garment worker, the novel depicts her experience through her own constricted and, to the reader, alien point of view. (Ali practices the self-effacement of the supremely confident writer as she subordinates her style to her protagonist’s perspective.)” Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly
“The joy of this book is its marriage of wonderful writer with a fresh, rich and hidden world…written with love and compassion for every struggling character in its pages.” Evening Standard
“Already one of the most significant British novelists of her generation.” The Observer (London)
“Brick Lane is a brilliant book about things that matter.” Ian Jack, Granta
I tried to find a negative review of Brick Lane but couldn’t fine one. Maybe because the Brits are new at incorporating immigrants they find this all so fascinating. Or the fact that London is multicultural is somehow news, too. I don’t now. What they’re thinking at the Atlantic, I can only guess. This is the magazine that’s pretty much relegated publishing short fiction to one issue a year instead of regularly, demonstrating loud and clear its interest in keeping literature alive.
For me Brick Lane is an inferior version Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” or Chopin’s “The Awakening”, or any other 19th century novel about confined women, with some New Immigrant Experience thrown in. As the descendant of immigrants and having lived next door to immigrants, Ali’s tale seemed well-worn and unremarkable. For a work to be praised so much, I had expected something truly ground-breaking in terms of literature, like Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” or Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” Maybe I had the wrong expectations.
I took a short break from the book to reread Tracks by Louise Erdrich. In that book, truly a great one, you get deep lively characters struggling under the grind of history, all rendered in a distinctive voice that depicts their world in vivid detail and fullness. (If you haven’t read Tracks, go out and get yourself a copy. I will warn you though that reading the Pauline sections of the book can at times be like reading a more lucid version of Quentin from Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”) I then tried returning to Brick Lane only to feel the unrewarding drudgery again. So I stopped. Life is too short and my TBR pile is too high.
There I am: a reader who has failed at reading Brick Lane.
Next up, I finally tackle Leon Forrest’s Divine Days.