Monica Ali’s debut is yet another tale of the immigrant life in the West. Nazneen – around whom the whole novel happens – is a lot like some heroines of Ms Lahiri – fatalist and accepting, resigned and dutiful – yet with the constant feeling of a life unlived. Since birth, she was left to her fate – a stillborn whom the mother refused to take to the doctor, she fought for her first breath only to be raised with a great respect and fear of the power of destiny. Energy should not be spent fighting it, for any fight is useless – that is almost her mother’s mantra. Hasina, Nazneen’s sister refuses to embrace this outlook on life and, after their mother’s suicide (the one time she has taken her life in her hands) she runs away to marry (for love) a village boy while Nazneen is married off by their father to a man twice her age (Chanu, her husband, is about 40) who lives in London. This starts the divergent course the two girls’ lives will take. Nazneen is the focus of the novel and her life is narrated in the 3rd person for the most part, while Hasina’s toils are known only through the letters she sends to her sister, written in a terribly broken English – actually broken Hindi. There is one exception though – a whole chapter is fully dedicated to those letters (while the rest are mixed) and we get a feel of Nazneen’s life and the little changes that occur in it through her sister’s eyes: the birth of her daughters, her husband’s employment troubles, the various elements of her daily routine.
In a way, all Ms Ali’s characters are broken and disappointed and, though the book brings them to a relatively happy end (or, at least, tranquil, with a touch of hope), it only goes to underline the tough hand they were dealt.
Chanu turns out to be a “good husband”; though Muslim he is not exceedingly traditional and keeps pointing out that he is an educated man and that Nazneen should indeed be grateful for such marital luck. He came to England after graduating from Dhaka University, with hopes to become a big man and he got stuck in a treacherous loop, attending more and more courses, hoarding diplomas and certificates, thinking they give him a status in society in general and at work in particular – he works for the Local Council and keeps speaking of a potential promotion. Gradually, in the 15 years the book encompasses those hopes are beaten out of him until you can’t even begrudge his hypocrisy or the financial woes he brings to the family. The higher the dreams, the bigger the fall – and Chanu had made in good faith great plans for his life. The disappointment of him ending up as a cabbie wears him out completely, to the point where, towards the end, he is a genuinely different person.
Nazneen, the simple country girl, is faced with the opposite transformation: as Chanu loses the will to better himself, as he stops making (unrealistic) plans, she gets over the death of a son and raises 2 daughters, takes on a sewing job which, for a while, provides for the entire family, sends money to her sister and even has an affair with a younger man. Husband and wife, their lives are mirrored, symmetrical: in the end, he is the one to leave the country (finally fulfilling one of his plans) and she stays in England, with her daughters. Their relationship, though not desirable, is somewhat moving – a strong bond, even love is born between them, culminating with the mutual understanding that they will not go together to Dhaka. Their final scene together and the calm words that pass between them (almost suffocated by what is left unspoken) was unexpected to me and thus all the more powerful.
Hasina’s life – filled with ups and downs from the moment she leaves her abusive husband, to her working respectable jobs and less respectable ones – is compelling, but her letters and Nazneen’s memories make her a bit two-dimensional.
There’s a lot more to the book, and almost every character faces tragedy in some way or another, but they all end up, for better or for worse, in a slightly different place than the one they started in (which, if you ask me, is a tad artificial). Life on Brick Lane, as portrayed by Ms Ali, is not easy and it’s nothing but a constant struggle.