by Monica Ali
Reader’s Choice 2/05
What will stay with me the longest from my reading of Monica Ali’s highly praised first novel “Brick Lane” are the images she has fashioned with her words. They are small moments, usually filled with emotion, involving her family of four Bangladeshi immigrants living in a crowded apartment complex in London from 1985 to 2002. I’ll tell you six. It could be sixty.
I won’t soon forget the scene where Nanzeen, an eighteen-year-old bride, watches the forty year old husband picked by her father pontificate on some subject in their tiny apartment bedroom. Ali describes, “Chanu, cross-legged on the bed. Bald knees pointing blindly at the walls. Stomach growing goiterlike over his privates. Hands tucked beneath the belly folds, exploring, weighing.” She understands at that moment that he and she belong to each other and that is that.
As a new bride Nanzeen struggles to adjust to married life as dictated by tradition. Another picture tells the story: Nanzeen is in her kitchen preparing lentils when Chanu comes in from his job. He is humming a silly nursery rhyme at top volume. Ali describes Nanzeen’s reaction, “Every particle of skin on her body prickled with something more physical than loathing. It was the same feeling she had when she used to swim in the pond and came up with a leech stuck to her leg.” But Nanzeen, a devout Muslim, gently asks him, “Shall I take your coat? Would you like to go and sit down?”
Chanu understandably has an overwhelming sense of entitlement. Another image forms in my mind to explain: Chanu is resting on the couch with a book in hand. He calls for a reluctant Shahana, one of his two young daughters, to come sit by his side. Ali tells us, “Shahana’s face was pulling in on itself, setting into a mask of utter disregard. She knelt by the sofa and held the book at an angle to her father’s face.” When he raised his tangled eyebrows, she knew it was time to turn the page.
This domestic relationship might not sound too promising but the three females do settle into their roles, the accommodating wife, the rebellious daughter and the eager-to-please youngest girl. It is Chanu who struggles with his role as breadwinner. He can never find employers in his adopted land who value what he constantly reminds everyone is his superb education in English literature, history and philosophy. He has all his certificates to prove it, even one that just gives directions to the school. “That’s all they gave out,” he explains.
When Chanu loses a job and Nanzeen must take on piecework as a seamstress, another well-drawn character comes into her life. Karim the young nephew of a clothing factory owner delivers work to her. As he comes and goes, he brings with him the excitement and energy of the world outside her confining flat. Still another scene stays with me: In the apartment Karim’s cell phone rings from the pocket of his skin-tight jeans and alerts him that it’s time for the afternoon prayer. Nanzeen offers him a rug but postpones her own prayer to avoid the impropriety of praying with an unrelated man. She stands by and quietly watches. As Ali says, “[Nanzeen] heard the blood pound in her heart and she trembled because he would surely hear it. . . He bowed, hands on knees, straight back. She saw how well he moved. Twice more. It was he who moved, but she who felt dizzy.” It is not too much longer before they become lovers.
This is not just a tale of domesticity. Other characters in the book bring the inevitable woes of a poor immigrant population into the story. Unemployed young men wander around the streets below, becoming more radical with time. A friend’s son on drugs, a crooked moneylender, aspiring revolutionaries and youths on a rampage have an impact on the family.
Yet in a quiet way, the family becomes stronger as the story progresses in spite of the fact that a disheartened and ashamed Chanu returns alone to his hometown in Bangladesh still dreaming of being important. One of the last scenes is touching: Chanu is speaking long distance to Nanzeen. Tentatively he proposes that she and the girls come visit. Nanzeen replies that she’d like that. Ali writes of Nanzeen, “The miles did not matter. She saw him beam. His eyes disappeared in crinkles. His cheeks were ready to burst. . . ‘That is the thing I’d like most in the world,” he tells her.
The critical raves that Monica Ali received are well deserved. With simple clear language she brings alive a tiny part of the world and some engaging and loveable characters within it.