A lot of young writers come out with seemingly “better” books than “Brick Lane” — books that are more ambitious, that feature paragraph after paragraph of artfully turned prose, that grapple with weighty intellectual themes and the thorny mysteries of human behavior. But few of those “better” books are likely to have as much heart as Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane.” This is Ali’s debut, and in places it certainly feels like a first book: There are passages that seem a little too taken with their own flowery fragrance, places where Ali seems to have forgotten — or maybe hasn’t quite intuited — that simplicity is best. But she has a wonderful gift: the ability to assemble layers of everyday detail so that they add up to more than a catalog of her own ability to observe. They form a backdrop against which her characters, vital and wholly believable, pop out in stark relief.
“Brick Lane” is the story of Nazneen, a woman brought from her home in Bangladesh at the age of 18 to London, where she begins a new life with her much older husband, Chanu. Nazneen is a devout Muslim and strives to be a good, unquestioning wife. But there are things about her new surroundings that excite her and pique her interest. She sees ice-skating on television and becomes fascinated by it; she decides she would like to learn English, and although Chanu discourages her, she picks it up anyway. Chanu is a man who fancies himself educated and sophisticated — he has a collection of framed certificates that prove how much education he’s had, though most of them have been earned at schools nobody has ever heard of. He’s liberal in some ways, and deeply traditional in others. And before long, his “unspoiled” village girl of a wife opens up more to the modern Western world than he does, although not in the most obvious ways.
In an early passage (the book opens in the mid-1980s and ends in the near-present day), Ali describes the surroundings of Chanu and Nazneen’s council flat, capturing their hold on Nazneen as part of her new life: “There was a lot of furniture, more than Nazneen had seen in one room before … There was a low table with a glass top and orange plastic legs, three little wooden tables that stacked together, the big table they used for the evening meal, a bookcase, a corner cupboard, a rack for newspapers, a trolley filled with files and folders, the sofa and armchairs, two footstools, six dining chairs, and a showcase. The walls were papered in yellow with brown squares and circles lining neatly up and down. No one in Gouripur had anything like it. It made her proud.”
Ali takes her time letting the story unfold, and it enwraps other characters who are close to Nazneen: the children she has with Chanu; her sister, Hasina, who, instead of agreeing to an arranged marriage, has embarked on a disastrous love match; and Nazneen’s neighbor and close friend, Razia, whose troubled life in this “new” world only makes her more impervious to the nostalgia many of her fellow immigrants harbor for the old one.
Ali’s real skill as a writer comes through in her ability to make us feel deeply for the characters who are initially the most annoying. And she’s staunchly critical of social, cultural and religious conventions (particularly Islam’s attitude toward and treatment of women), without ever suggesting that anything can be cast in black-and-white. In “Brick Lane” big events aren’t what shape people’s lives in the most profound ways; the little, almost imperceptible jumps made from one day to the next have far more significance. Ali tells Nazneen’s story one day at a time, capturing not the tedium of everyday life but the ever-changing and sometimes marvelous texture of it.