Brick Lane, by Monica Ali

Nazneen leaves Bangladesh and is sent to London for an arranged marriage with a man she's never met. Living in a flat in the East End is very different from her previous village life, and the contrast is emphasised in the letters she exchanges with her sister, who she's left behind.

I had expected this to be a bit like White Teeth and it wasn't entirely dissimilar, but it wasn't less rambling, and I think had a bit more emotional involvement with the characters.

Nazneen's husband Chanu was particularly well realised. At once pompous and ineffectual; knowledgeable but lacking in insight - always making plans and schemes which go nowhere, unable to understand why the world doesn't accord him the respect he thinks he deserves. But he was very believable. And, rather unexpectedly, you end up liking him, even though the way he treats Nazneen does not seem particularly loving. I found the descriptions of the way he requires her to cut his corns and trim his nasal hair rather a surprise, because it seems demeaning, but he's not doing it to demean her; it's just something he has been led to expect a wife will do. And to be fair, Nazneen seems to expect to do it.

But Chanu provides (unintentionally) much of the humour of the book too - it is quite funny.

There were some fairly substantial bits of the book which concern Nazneen's sister, who we learn about through her letters. This was something I had a bit of a problem with. Nazneen and her family and friends mostly do not speak in English, and a convention in the book is to use italics when they do. But italics are also used for the letters from home, and these letters are written in a sort of broken English, e.g. I not mean to make you frighten. Now I assume the sister is not writing in English, but if not, why are the letters in italics, and more annoyingly, why is the grammar wonky? I don't think the sister is unintelligent, or inarticulate - it's not pidgin English. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this and it got in the way for me a bit.

Having said that, the device of mixing pictures of England with accounts of life back in Bangladesh was quite effective at contrasting the two.

Something else which made the book feel a bit unreal was the way that Nazneen often dreams or daydreams of her previous life, and of her dead mother, who she sometimes converses with. But in some cases the daydreams mix up a bit with reality, and this was something that happens when Nazneen meets Karim: the book moves from her seemingly fantasising about having an affair with him to the reality of it, and it wasn't obvious where the switch happened (maybe if I went back I'd spot it, but as I was reading, I felt "oh, it's actually happening then").

There were a couple of nice descriptions I randomly noted in the book Nazneen dreaming of the rice fields back home [p21]:

And heaven, which was above, was wide and empty and the land stretched out ahead and she could see to the very end of it, where the earth smudged the sky in a dark blue line
And night-time in the streets of London [p449]:
He leaned against a strip of wall between two shop windows...Behind the plate glass white lights heated the faceless mannequins. It had rained, and the slick brown pavements bore a liquid print of the light inside and carried it down to the gutter

Overall a very pleasant read though. Thinking back on it now what I'm most impressed with is the way I ended up liking Chanu.

Completed : 09-Jul-2010

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