‘Brick Lane’ is the debut novel of Monica Ali and published by Black Swan Publishers. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, and is all-around regarded as a pretty solid read. It follows the life of Nanzeen, an Islamic woman from Bangladesh who marries a much older man, moves to East London, and struggles to maintain her identity in an increasingly strange and difficult world.
I’m going to admit, when the blurb on the back of the book mentioned Nanzeen’s arranged marriage, I internally groaned. I’ve been reading a lot of quite stereotypical Islamic women’s fiction of late, and I thought I knew what the pattern (and therefore the characters) would be. How wrong I was. ‘Brick Lane’ blew everything else absolutely out of the water with its heart and its nuance. Nanzeen is just such a wonderful character – she’s possibly the most well-rounded character I’ve ever read. It feels wrong to even call her a character, because she feels so real. We see her as a daughter, as a mother, as dutiful, as rebellious, as hopeful, as despairing… and all of it is completely in-character.
Ali is obviously aware of the politicised nature of her novel as it travels from 1967 to October 2001. The events of 9/11 are handled in a particularly sensitive way. It is humane, and it is reflective, and through the multitude of characters, gives an enormous variety in the portrayal of Islam. There are those, like Chanu, Nanzeen’s husband, who consider themselves a higher class of Muslim, there are jihadists, there are seemingly ‘Westernised’ Muslims, there are women in burkhas, and women in sweatshirts… But there are also a whole set of problems that Nanzeen faces that are not to do with race, but just occur throughout life. The novel ended with hope, and love, and a wonderful mesh of cultures.
The writing style was very accessible -Nanzeen’s thoughts unfold slowly and deliberately across the page, and you cannot help but interact with them. Fairly often there are letters from her sister Hasina, which are realistically written. Charming and full of life, Hasina herself bursts from her letters, creating yet another wonderfully written female character within ‘Brick Lane’. It was also very funny. Chanu in particular was written as bombastic, effusive, and absolutely hilarious.
I did find it slow, I will admit. But having finished it, I think that it needs to be. The steady pace so accurately represents the mundanity of Nanzeen’s daily life – until the last 100 pages, in which everything explodes into action. I read these last 100 pages quicker than anything I’ve read in my life. Those last two chapters…they absolutely shattered me, and on the last page, lovingly put me back together again.
On the whole – if you’re trying to read more diverse fiction, in particular Islamic women’s fiction? Start here. You won’t regret it.