Brick Lane, Monica Ali, Scribner, 2003, 369 pp
Now this was a wonderful story and just the kind of read I truly enjoy. Nanzeen, the main character, was born in a Bangladeshi village, married off to a Bangladeshi man who lived in London, and so found herself at the age of 16, living in this strange Western city.
The opening scene about Nanzeen's birth was riveting: she appeared to be dead at birth. After a while she finally took a breath, made a cry, but she was weak and would not nurse. Her mother, a simple peasant, declined a doctor and proclaimed that she was leaving the baby to her fate. This fate was what hung over Nanzeen as the story of her birth was told and re-told in her childhood, making the story of the novel the way a woman learned to take charge of her own destiny.
Monica Ali was also born in Bangladesh and raised in London. She depicts the life and community of these immigrants with certainty, sympathy and a high political sense as well. All of the parents are in arranged marriages. All the kids are picking up Western ways. I have read about this scenario for years, but it was set in American cities with European and Asian immigrants and I liked reading the story with a different nationality and location. In Brick Lane, Nanzeen has a sister back in Bangladesh with whom she regularly corresponds, so you see twenty years of change simultaneously in both cultures.
The characters are well-drawn, especially Nanzeen's husband and daughters, the neighborhood money-lender and one of Nanzeen's friends. Nanzeen's dual nature as obedient wife and as a woman with her own hopes and desires is portrayed with skill and creates the same tension in the reader. The novel is a feat of understanding and raised my awareness of what it must be like for the Hispanic and Armenian populations of Los Angeles. This is an extremely fine novel.