When you pick up a book to get into the groove of reading after a month-long reading hiatus, you want the book to slap you in the face, wake you up, and get excited about the activity of reading itself. But that’s only the best case scenario. With Monica Ali’s Brick Lane none of that happened. I started the book and I wondered every now and then, why I was still reading it and why I wasn’t keeping it down. I finished it to save face (from myself), but rest assured, what’s going to follow is not going to be pleasant.
I’ve said this before, and I’m saying it again – I hate to say anything negative about a book. I’m not a writer, after all, what do I know? But Brick Lane just didn’t do it for me. The start was interesting enough – beginning at the beginning, with the birth of the protagonist Nazneen in a small village in Bangladesh. We are told right then that Nazneen will grow up to be someone who will not question fate, and will live life with its ebb and flow, going where the tide takes her, never swimming against it. That is, I must admit, a refreshing characteristic, but it gets to be old after a while. I had so many problems with the book that I need to make a list, so that I contain it in a respectable and readable manner.
- Nazneen gets married off to a man twice her age and sent to London, and she doesn’t question it. She makes her home with a man she hardly knows, and tries to find joy in the small things that life offers her. But over all, Nazneen is a reticent live-r of life. I’ve yet to come across a central character that is so laid back. We see life of an immigrant through Nazneen’s lack-luster eyes, and I was constantly reminded of Ashima in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. But Ashima seems much more interesting when compared to Nazneen.
- The problem, however, might not be the character of Nazneen herself, but Ali’s writing style, which is rambling and often lead the reader to a cul-de-sac. There were passages that went nowhere and left me confused. The metaphors were liberally distributed, and got quite annoying after the second chapter. Writing needs to be poetic, but it needs to be curtailed. I am not a fan of long books, and this one was 400 pages long.
- Ali’s focus is nothing in particular. Is it about racial tensions in London? Is it about a marriage that works despite differences in age, lifestyles, morals? Is it about Nazneen’s sexual awakening? Is it about how she changes over her lifetime? We are given a little of everything, but nothing specifically to go away with.
- Nazneen’s tie to Bangladesh is her sister Hasina and Ali even brings a little of the epistolary form into the book with the help of Hasina’s letters to Nazneen. But all of the letters are in bad English (which is supposed to mean they are in bad Bangla, I suppose, since the sisters don’t speak English), which I skipped over. Not only were the letters a break from the flow of the novel, they were so difficult to read because they were not in proper English. I am sorry that Hasina had to be given such a poor way of being involved in the story.
- The only person whom I actually cared about in the book was a friend of Nazneen’s called Razia. That was the only character that showed a proper growth arc and was so down-to-earth that I liked her. But she was often reduced to a caricature and was strictly kept as a supporting character.
I am not sure why this book has won so many accolades, and I am interested in knowing what others thought about it. No doubt there are people out there who enjoyed the book, and I’d like to know why. At the same time, I’d love to know if some of you have read it and thought the same as I did. I wouldn’t feel so miserable about a bad review if I knew I had company!