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Thursday, April 07, 2005

BRICK LANE

This supposedly scintillating debut by Monica Ali had been eluding me for some time. The story is simple and stark-a Bangladeshi girl of eighteen is shepherded to marry a middle-aged gent living in England. The girl keeps in epistolary touch with her sister who contrived to move from one catastrophe to another . The protagonist then falls in idyllic love with a renegade immigrant in London. The husband decides he’s had enough of prejudice and class differences and he wants to go back with his family-wife and two teenaged daughters to England. His family reviles his intent , they stay back and he is last heard off from Bangladesh.

No vacillating about the certitude and the mastery of the author over her subject—an emigrant’s gaze on how life passes by in an alien setting and the haunting inaction as one attempts to contend and surmount what are essentially irreconcilable differences.
She manages to get into the skin of the lead character, who mercifully is not an angst-ridden monster, but a warm, caring and sensitive individual. Her averageness, her plain Jane-ness is her strength and hence that is a steady frame of reference for the plot, without delving into unseemly crests and troughs across the years. It is also this strength that suffuses others around her, sometimes without thei realization.

Now, the faraway sister is the more adventurous, at least in amorous terms and is hence always getting taken advantage of in Bangladesh, and this itself can come as no surprise in a repressed land. Her missives to her sister explaining as her life unfolds is all that we know of her, and for some reason these are written in halting pidgin English. My hunch is that these were meant to be in Bengali but Ali had no choice but present these as English. Consequently, these are the most contrived and affected of all the prose.

Her daughters are fashionably fussy, modern and pert—although Ali maintains a fine balance by having one lass politically correct.

Her friends range between the Johnny-come-lately and the austere, again some social commentary at play here.

Her husband was by far the best characterization achieved—his innate inferiority is masked and shrouded by a militant zeal for knowledge as he rails against a system not built for him. His gentleness and perspective keep the family afloat, and although (because ??) he is a:”loser”, he appealed to me.

Much more could have been done with the younger lover, his gasconade, heroic predilections and manliness are prized, but fade away as things become murkier for him and his sensibilities.

The plot is steady, unpretentious, subdued and seasoned. She does never quite get going though, so the lack of originality gnaws and is yet unrequited at the end of the novel.

A 7 on 10 ! (Just so she doesn’t go the Amit Chaudhari way )

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