Women’s Lives In Brick LaneDecember 27, 2011 No Comments
I always request books for Christmas. I always have. I’m not sure if that made me an easy child to buy for. Novels are certainly cheaper than a new Nintendo (which is what we called an Xbox back in my day), but how to select one for a grumpy nine-year-old? Or, for that matter, a 31-year-old.
As an adult, one of the most memorable books I received as a Christmas gift was Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. When Ali wrote her Booker shortlisted novel, about a Bengali community on the titular housing estate in east London, the tide of fiction delving into the lives of immigrants to the UK (mainly from the Indian subcontinent and the West Indies) was on the rise.
This novel, however, stood out as something special.
Just like when I was a child, I unwrapped the book last and spent the whole day with it.
I was hooked on Nazneen, the novel’s central character, from the beginning. Her hard beginning in a male-dominated east Pakistani village is rich with human contrast. Nazneen’s mother’s tearful faith compared with her aunt’s cheerful practicality; her sister Hasina’s disobedience compared with Nazneen’s unquestioning obedience.
Nazneen’s obedience brings the character to England, where she lives with her older husband, chosen by her father. She rarely leaves the small area around her flat. Her cultural and linguistic isolation is palpable, though it never interferes with the character, who the reader knows through her observations. Of her small apartment, of her self-important husband, neighbours and tiny collection of acquaintances.
As the novel follows Nazneen through nearly two decades in England, Hasina’s letters reveal the disturbing cultural consequences of her youthful grab at sexual autonomy. Her desperation burns through letters which attempt to put a brave face on a lifetime of misery and abuse; meanwhile, Nazneen makes the best of things.
The parallel stories of the two sisters give a realistic account of cruelty and misogyny in two different contexts. They also provide an account of two very different means of survival. Both women make choices based on what is available to them; sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.
Nazneen’s friend and neighbour Razia practices the most frequent subversion in the novel. She functions well as an echo of the aunt and sister Nazneen left behind, and as a character who rejects accepted notions of femininity with increasing bravery. The fact that Razia doesn’t go unpunished illuminates Hasina’s fate with tragic realism.
The layered complexities of community and economy are uncovered gradually, through Nazneen’s gaze. The combination of tyranny and kindness in a close, dysfunctional community are revealed through small acts of honesty and passive violence. Nazneen’s husband Chanu’s pomposity gradually becomes tragic as his optimism is battered by a series of failures. The effects of poverty, racism and misunderstanding between generations gains momentum toward the end of the novel.
Brick Lane reaches too obvious and predictable a resolution. Though the entire text contrasts culture without favouring one over the other, the story is drawn together by a trite moral.
Apart from the needless and clumsy ending, the novel is one I’ve read multiple times and will keep going back to.
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