Thursday, August 17, 2006

Brick Lane

I've finally got round to reading "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali. I think it was the woman who picks Richard and Judy's book club saying it was her one "mistake" (mainly, I think because Ali wasn't particularly starry-eyed at such an accolade), that finally made me get round to it. I'd read the chapter in Granta's young novelists round up, and been impressed by Ali's surety of touch - no naive debutant here, but a fully formed writer - and having written about the recent upset concerning the book, and particular Germaine Greer's comments, I've at last found the time. I think it's a remarkably sustained work, a very well-written debut novel, which sets itself a formidable task - to write about a hidden part of society, but do it through humanely believable characters. Such a task, of course, was what the great Victorian novels excelled in. The Bangladeshi community of 21st Century Tower Hamlets is peeled open, like Eliot peeled open radical Jewish London in "Daniel Deronda". There are none of the middle class conventions that jump out from even a writer like Zadie Smith. The characters in "Brick Lane", from seamstress to doctor, are unable, unwilling, or unlikely to be able to step into the world around them. Brick Lane, just a step away from London's financial heartbeat, may as well be as isolated as the Brazilian slums of "City of God." What Ali does well, and I'd hope she continues to do, is to build detail-on-detail, quietly, unflashily, to build up a portrait that goes beyond what might initially appear stereotypes. In the arranged marriage of Nazneen and Chanu she takes a stock situation and adds to it, little by little until it's a feast of subtle characterisation. Chanu is a brilliant creation - a thwarted intellectual, a useless, but kind husband and father - whilst Nazneen - born in Bangladesh in 1967, married off at 16, is a child slowly having to become a woman. The isolation of this community is hardly believable, but women kept behind closed doors, and not being allowed or encouraged to work or speak, it becomes believable. Nazneen's growing confidence is incredibly slow coming - and if there's a major fault with the books, its in foregrounding so much post-1998, when clearly the brutal realities of the Thatcher years could so easily have destroyed such fragile characters. Ali reminds me a little of Doris Lessing, in having both a real concern for the minutiae of everyday (often female) life, and an intellectual's raised eyebrow at the wider picture. I can't think of many contemporary writers who would have the ability and confidence to mix the two, yet such a "societal" novel should be central to our fiction. She should be applauded in that sense, for not grounding the novel in the past, or - despite its lingering essense - in the foreign exoticism of the subcontinent. In "The Good Terrorist" Lessing piles up the details of a radical commune, and the inherent contradictions in such politics, and Ali, with a sharp eye for the satirical, without ever becoming the Kumars, likewise wheedles these out. The abysmal Mrs. Iqbal, a rapacious moneylender, could come out of a Dickens slum - and its a reminder of what the poor have to do to "get by." It's a long book, and although the forward tension is handled expertly, it sometimes fails to give justice to the major actions within the characters lives. If the domestic is in close focus, the bigger tragedies seem to lack emotional resonance, Nazneen's "trusting to fate" a little too easy an excuse. Even the awakening that occurs when the young radical Karim enters her life, is handled in soft focus. I had horrors of it turning into a Mills and Boon at this stage, but Ali never forgets where her characters are - what their limitations are. It's perhaps no coincidence that its female writers - like Lessing, like Eliot - and even E. Annie Proulx in "The Shipping News" - who come to mind when it comes to this portrayal of lives that are not easily turned around.


Elizabeth Baines said...

Hello Adrian. Here I am, a newcomer to Blogworld. This is a very thoughtful account (in the middle of all the slanging matches), and you have made me determined to read Brick Lane now.

But what do you mean by Zadie Smith's 'middle class conventions'? I couldn't help thinking that both Eliot and Lessing, to whom you compare Ali, are pretty middle class, though I guess you mean something subtler - ie to do with literary technique?

Adrian Slatcher said...

I should have linked to Natasha Walters review in the Guardian which I think I echoed in many ways. As for the Zadie Smith comment, rather than "middle class conventions", I should have probably said "middle class stereotypes" because though I like Zadie's work each book seems to have more Oxbridge professor types, and less binmen in it. It was refreshing, in Ali, to find a writer who was happy for all of her characters to be - for want of a better word - "ordinary." I'd seen you'd been blogging, glad to have you join our "dysfunctional family."

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it's true that Zadie's characters are getting more and more middle class. It's hard not to write about class, though, which she does, without including them. Still, you do feel that she writes from 'inside' the middle class, in spite of having once been lauded as a 'working-class writer'. But I could write you a whole essay on the evil temptations of 'writing middle class'!