Sunday, 30 January 2011

CBR3 Book 8: "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali

Publisher: Black Swan
Page count: 496 pages
Rating: 1 star
Date begun: January 29th, 2011
Date finished: January 30th, 2011

Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. It's an international bestseller and was turned into a movie in 2007. It's been sitting on my shelf since 2004, and has been moved with my stuff from Scotland to Norway. It was Monica Ali's debut novel, and the cover and first three-four pages are covered with quotes from rave reviews from literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic. I'm wondering if they read the same book as me, but more on that later.

Nazneen is born in a small village in Bangladesh in 1967 and at first appears to be stillborn. She miraculously draws breath and starts screaming after a minute or two, but refuses to nurse for the first five days of her existence. Her mother is determined to leave her to her Fate, rather than interfering with said Fate and taking the baby to the nearest hospital. After five days, the baby finally starts eating, and Nazneen is told throughout her childhood and adolescence in rural Bangladesh that she must never stand in the way of her Fate, but calmly accept all life throws at her. Her younger sister, the beautiful Hasina has no intention of accepting the traditional path her parents have planned for her, and runs off with the nephew of the village's saw-mill owner to make a love marriage. Shortly after, eighteen-year-old Nazneen is married off to a fat stranger twenty years her elder. Having been raised to be compliant, she doesn't protest, even when he takes her far away to London, England.

Nazneen knows no English and spends most of the early days of her arranged marriage confined to a council flat, cleaning, dusting and cooking. Her husband fancies himself a great scholar, with a degree in English literature from Dhaka University. He occasionally has the local doctor over for dinner, and is sure he will be promoted in his job soon, as he has a much better education than many of his colleagues. Nazneen treasures each new English word she learns as a gem, and founds diversion from her monotonous life by watching glamorous figure skaters on the TV occasionally. She is aware that she is lucky - her husband doesn't hit her, and buys her new saris or anything else she might want, but neither does he understand why she'd want to learn to speak English or leave the confines of the council estate once in a while.

Years pass, Nazneen becomes the mother of two girls, and gets to know most of the the other housewives in the Bangladeshi community near London's Brick Lane well. Her husband is still full of dreams and schemes for making enough money to take the family back "home" to Bangladesh, where the girls can be raised the "proper" way, without all the influence of English society. Nazneen, despite her quiet discontent, is aware that she is much better off than her sister Hasina, who keeps writing every so often. Her love marriage didn't turn out well and as the years go by she ends up worse and worse. Nazneen tries to get enough money put aside to send to her sister, but it's difficult when her own family barely has enough to get by on, and her husband won't let his wife break with tradition and get a job as well.

This book is nearly 500 pages long. It's a very detailed description of immigrant life in London from the 1980s to early 2002, and shows the many difficulties faced by young women brought over from "the old country" through arranged marriages. The meal Nazneen cooks, the clothes she wears, the contents of the flat she lives in, the council estate, Brick Lane and all the people in Nazneen's life are described in painstaking detail. The letters from Hasina are written with a limited vocabulary and poor grammar, which again adds authenticity, but also makes them (at least for me, an English teacher) painfully difficult to read without getting a headache. Despite the great attention to detail and local colour, I found the book dreadfully dull.

I shall from now on think of Brick Lane as the literary equivalent of Woody Allen's film Match Point, which was also lauded by critics everywhere, and which nearly bored me to tears. I'm still convinced all those enthusiastic movie critic saw a different Match Point from me, one that was actually worth all those rave reviews. Same with this - perhaps all those book reviewers read a different book, coincidentally called Brick Lane, which was not a dreary 500-page slog. This book is being donated to charity as soon as possibly, as I'm definitely never reading it again, and I won't have it taking up precious book shelf space any longer either.

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