Brick Lane – Monica Ali

first_imgGive me your tired, your poor and your huddled masses…” If ever a place in England could speak these lines as that famous symbol of immigrant opportunity west of the Atlantic does, it would be a stretch of road smack–bang in the middle of London’s East End. For fleeing Huguenots in the 18th century, escaping Jews in the 19th and Bangladeshis in the 20th it was a place of economic and social refuge; that place was Brick Lane. Monica Ali’s debut novel immortalises the idiosyncrasies of the immigrant experience, focusing on a Bangladeshi woman and her trials and tribulations as a daughter, wife and mother. The narrative journeys from rural Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets with Nazneen its protagonist. In London she experiences a fettered lifestyle, firmly under the thumb of her husband’s “advice” despite her own embryonic attempts to forge an independent existence. Far from being illiberal, her husband, Chanu, is neither religiously inclined nor particularly adherent to native custom. He revels in his self-implied superior status, a man “always learning” in comparison to other Bangladeshis who “miss the pull of the land”. Meanwhile, Nazneen listens with serene confidence to her husband’s platitudes on everything and anything, and her children’s difficulty with their culture. Interwoven are glimpses of Hasina’s life through letters she sends to her sister, Nazneen. Later, young Karim enters Nazneen’s life, sparking hidden desires and catalysing Nazneen’s path to self–discovery as a woman. Unfortunately the Booker–Prize– nominated Brick Lanefails to live up to its press blurb. Euphemistically called “epic” and “Dickensian”, some may claim the lack of dramatic momentum is necessary in order to correspond realistically with the minutiae of Nazneen’s slow life, but it still doesn’t adequately justify the plodding pace. Like Dickens, Ali creates cartoonish characters instantly recognisable through what they look like and say; there’s Chanu’s fat self and pseudo–intellectual ruminations, Mrs Islam’s arthritic body and tiresome advice and Islamic groups with fundamentalist leanings, animations that become clichéd and painfully skewed. But Ali must be commended on her poetic and practical vision of the immigrant experience. She gives us haunting aperçus wrought with pathos into death and illuminating observations on the tantalising memory of the motherland, the immigrant’s disillusionment with the host-culture and the question of a multicultural identity. Ali implies in many ways that an immigrant’s old-school thinking has no place in a modern world where free will spells out happiness for the individual, a world where choice not convention must determine human action, after all says a character, “This is England, you can do whatever you like.”ARCHIVE: 0th Week MT2003last_img read more