by Monica Ali
Still in her teenage years, Nazneen finds herself in an arranged marriage with a disappointed man who is twenty years older. Away from the mud and heat of her Bangladeshi village, home is now a cramped flat in a high-rise block in London’s East End. Nazneen knows not a word of English, and is forced to depend on her husband. But unlike him she is practical and wise, and befriends a fellow Asian girl Razia, who helps her understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home.
Nazneen keeps in touch with her sister Hasina back in the village. But the rebellious Hasina has kicked against cultural tradition and run off in a ‘love marriage’ with the man of her dreams. When he suddenly turns violent, she is forced into the degrading job of garment girl in a cloth factory.
Confined in her flat by tradition and family duty, Nazneen also sews furiously for a living, shut away with her buttons and linings – until the radical Karim steps unexpectedly into her life. On a background of racial conflict and tension, they embark on a love affair that forces Nazneen finally to take control of her fate.
Strikingly imagined, gracious and funny, this novel is at once epic and intimate. Exploring the role of Fate in our lives – those who accept it; those who defy it – it traces the extraordinary transformation of an Asian girl, from cautious and shy to bold and dignified woman.
This was my third attempt at reading “Brick Lane”. I’m not really sure why, but on two previous occasions I’ve started this book and given up and then as a result it’s been on my shelf for years – in fact, it’s been on three shelves, in three different houses.
So I finally decided to give it a go and see it through to the end. I really wanted to like it and the first few chapters felt promising. Following a long story with a lot of characters can sometimes be difficult for me so I made a little family tree and stuck it to the front page of the book, determined to stick at it. But unfortunately as the pages went on, I began to understand why I had abandoned it twice before.
I just didn’t find “Brick Lane” to be very interesting. Nazneen moves from Bangladesh to London at a young age as part of an arranged marriage to a much older and sweatier man named Chanu. What follows is 500 pages of their day to day lives from the mundane descriptions of what they were going to eat that night to toe curling images of Nazneen cutting the skin from her husband’s corns. I found that there really wasn’t anything particularly exciting going on and I can’t really say I’ve learned much from this either.
Nazneen moves to the UK without her family and communicates with them only by letter. While I enjoyed the change of reading some paragraphs in a letter format, those from Hasina, Nazneen’s sister, were written in broken English which made them pretty tricky to read. I’m not sure why the decision was made to do this as it seems highly unlikely that the sisters would be communicating in English anyway and it just put me off a little, encouraging me to skim these sections towards the end.
There were some parts that I enjoyed though and these were mostly towards the beginning when Nazneen is exploring so many new aspects of her life; being in a new country with a new culture, living as a wife and being without her family for the first time. I would have preferred a book that focused on the immigrant experience a little more, learning more about Bangladeshi culture.
Overall rating: “Brick Lane” has been on my shelf for years and now I’ve finished it, I’m underwhelmed and a little disappointed. Despite some good chapters exploring what it’s like to move to the UK as an immigrant, it’s long and a little tedious at times – 2 stars.