I had been wanting to read Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Black Swan, 2003) for ages but never really got round to it. The impetus to finally read it came from from book group and I picked up a copy at a brilliant second hand book shop in Tooting frequented by Savidge Reads for a bargain 40p along with variety of others!
Brick Lane follows the experiences of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman married off to a man – Chanu – twenty years her elder at the age of eighteen. He takes her to live on the other side of the world in London’s East End. The book follows Nazneen as she adjusts to her new life, initially speaking no English and being virtually confined to the tower block where she lives with such wonderful wifely duties as cutting her husband’s corns and plucking his nasal hairs along with housekeeping and cooking. Far away from her home and receiving only occasional letters from her sister who endures all sorts of problems after eloping with a man whom she loves, Nazneen is isolated and feels powerless to help. As time passes she settles into family life raising two daughters and makes a close friend within the community. She also finds a certain measure of Independence through working herself, squirrelling away pennies for her sister abroad. However this new Independence brings a young man into her life with radical ideas and the potential to uproot her family life completely.
I have to say that the hype around this book had the effect of putting me off slightly and perhaps for me it did suffer a bit from being so highly recommended in that my expectations were very high. The first few pages threw me in at the deep end with Nazneen’s dramatic birth and the story of “How I was left to my fate”, and I very much enjoyed reading about Nazneen’s first impressions of England in contrast to that. In particular, I loved the bit where she watches the “Ice-eskaters” on television and is totally enamoured by their beautiful outfits and how they seem to float on the ice. some very sweet and witty moments! However while I did think that the book was very well written and enjoyed reading it I didn’t find it to be a book I was rushing to pick up. Perhaps it was because I didn’t feel that I warmed to the main character as much as I could have and also I didn’t really feel that I had a sense of how much time passed throughout the story. I lost interest a little around the middle of the book, exactly at the time when it should have become more interesting with the arrival of Karim (Nazneen’s love interest).
I don’t think that I’m alone in finding this a difficult read. A quick glance at Amazon ratings reveals some mixed feelings about the book. Also I was interested to read up on Wikipedia that there was actually quite alot of controversy surrounding the book in the way that Ali represents certain groups and on top of that, she managed to annoy the Richard and Judy producer Amanda Ross (oops!) causing her to say that Brick lane is the only book that Ross selected for the book group that she didn’t believe in.
However I’m glad that I persevered with this as in the final part of the story you really see Nazneen’s character develop and see her making some difficult decisions. Towards the end of the novel she fights against her ingrained idea that “fate will decide” and becomes more active in her choices. Also, I couldn’t help but feel totally endeared to Chanu, the philosophising husband who could cook better than his wife. One of my favourite lines is when Nazneen says “From the very beginning to the very end, we didn’t see things. What we did – we made each other up.” A few very wise moments but not always as well tied together as they could have been.
Overall I enjoyed Brick Lane and feel that for a debut novel it is very good, but I wouldn’t put it on my best books list. Maybe this is because I felt frustrated that it could have been even better!