Brick Lane by Monica Ali
There are some books which lift a veil and enable you to see something with more clarity and understanding than you have ever managed in real life. They present a world which is so vivid that it smacks you in the mouth. You are not so much drawn as dragged in. You become a participant in whatever drama is playing out. Brick Lane is one of those books.
It tells the story of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman brought to Britain for an arranged marriage. She is not beaten or abused or trafficked. Her husband loves and cares for her as well as he is able to, and she grows fond of him. She has food and shelter and security, but she has no freedom. Her culture precludes her from going out and about at will, from working, taking courses or engaging in society. British society itself also hampers her because it makes her feel strange, suspected and unwelcome. Society judges her - people like me, who - before I read this book - would have looked at her without seeing who she is, and judged her because she does not speak English but failed to say ‘hello’. Between her culture and mine, her emotional, intellectual and social life is squeezed until its pips squeak.
Her life is reduced to the four walls of the shabby high rise council flat, with its crumbling plaster and unreliable toilet and odd medley of furniture picked up for cheapness. She tunes in to the sounds and unintelligible babble of the neighbours half-caught through the paper thin walls. Some days, these are her only human contact. She stares for hours through the smeary glass of the kitchen window, down into the litter-strewn quadrangle far below, trying to make sense of the cold, foreign, unfriendly country where she finds herself. Boys push drugs and dogs defecate in the playground. Racist gangs roam round looking for a fight and Islamic protest groups gear up to give them one. It comes to you with a shock that if this shabby, smelly little flat is her prison, the world outside it is filthy and cruel and dangerous - no escape at all. You wonder why Nazneen is not crushed.
Indeed she is crushed, but she is not extinguished. Nazneen has such courage and integrity, such largeness of human spirit that she forges for herself, out of virtually nothing, a life. Her compassion and humour as she does so is amazing. I am in awe of her. I want to know her. That’s how brilliant this book is. She is a fictional character brought to life so vividly that I like her and I want her to be my friend.
Chanu, her husband, is a man full of his own importance, pompous, well educated in matters of little or no interest to anyone else. He reminded me of Mr Micawber, certain beyond all evidence to the contrary that something will turn up. Whether it is his lack of self-knowledge or just the fact that he is an immigrant, whether his inflated expectations or British failure to see and value his qualities, he is as much at the heart of this tragedy as his wife.
Except I am beginning to wonder, now, whether this really is their tragedy. I wonder more if it isn’t mine.
I do not want to give the impression that this is a bleak or depressing book. It is neither of those things. It is actually rather funny, the language at times is as dry and lip-withering as a good Sauvignon Blanc, at other times as naughty as Prosecco on a work-day afternoon, sometimes unctuous as tawny port. Monica Ali observes Nazneen’s world and mine with equal asperity. The small troupe of Bangladeshi characters who populate Nazneen’s tiny world are Dickensian in their comedic exaggeration.
Like many people, I have been aware of and completely ignorant about immigrant communities in Britain. I have seen sari-wearing ladies who keep themselves to themselves and have little or no English and I have wondered ‘why did you come here, if you didn’t want to join in?’
Well, now I know.
I urge you to lift the veil and see.