Brick Lane is a seminal text of modern London and the multicultural experience. It positions itself in the surprisingly rich perception of an uneducated woman who works hard and just wants the best for her children, and ultimately her chosen husband.
Ali presents us with a range of distinctive characters whose stories intertwine in a pleasing fashion. Such immigration, dominantly Bangladeshi, is disingenuously framed by the deadly Mrs Islam as:
‘Mixing with all sorts: Turkish, English, Jewish. All sorts. I am not old-fashioned,’ said Mrs Islam. ‘I don’t wear burkha. I keep purdah in my mind, which is the most important thing. Plus I have cardigans and anoraks and a scarf for my head. But if you mix with all these people, even if they are good people, you have to give up your culture to accept theirs. That’s how it is.’
The question as to what values Mrs Islam is giving up and accepting is the most telling one.
The book stokes discourse about immigration. Poisonous ideologies, notably from Farage and Hopkins, ensure that sensible discussion is almost impossible in the UK in 2018. Both those parties have made much money disingenuously courting controversy on immigration. Monica Ali presents several aspects worth reading. Firstly she portrays a small number of ‘kitchen immigrants’ who live for decades in a town without moving outside the circle of their family, never learning a language and self-ghettoising. Contrasting these immigrants we have those more educated and skilled: the story of immigration into any country seems to show that cosmopolitanism flourishes from education.
The marches against the anti-immigration movements are well-handled with some sensitivity. The liaison officer is the only non-Bangladeshi in the group who enjoys being part of ‘The Bengal Tigers’, which is admittedly a pretty awesome name. Whether this makes Nazneen, our protagonist, part of a cohesive immigrant community is another question.
At this point I should like to say that I see quite a few reviews of this book speak of this as an Indian immigrant community. There are quite different pressures and cultural expectations between Indian and Bangladeshi communities and are worth be aware of.
The narrative makes the relatively mundane experiences worthwhile. The husband, older and half-educated, is decent yet ineffectual. His organization of a trip around London’s sites decades after living there is telling. He is treated with kind respect by his suffering family and I enjoyed this outing. Chanu’s (the husband) relationship with Azad (a doctor) is also melancholically amusing. The narrative of the money-lending and the final confrontation is well handled, and is perhaps the overarching narrative, at least domestically for Nazneen.
Ali also offers an interesting narrative diversion in the letters of her sister. Much criticism of their broken English has been made, and not without reason. Her desire to seek a love marriage and to be a good person plays well against the passive acceptance of Nazneen. One particular thread that struck me was Nazneen’s affair with the politicised Karim:
Radical was a new word for Nazneen. She heard it often enough from Karim that she came to understand it and know that it was simply another word for ‘right’.
Such a line is typical of Brick Lane: an uneducated guess at concepts that make complete sense from their limited PoV. Having followed this after reading The Good Terrorist, this made me laugh especially. Strong political groups normalise distinctive positions, and the most political become blind to that normalization. It is in this space that Nazeen’s desire to defy a husband, and the tensions of being a mother become most potent.
Nazneen’s social space, though, is mostly passive, and Ali presents us with the experience of passivity in a culture that is not Western in origin. Is such passivity virtuous? Are the actions she takes against it evil? Is her passivity suffering? Is not her evil just her suffering made active? In depicting her child’s defiance against immigrant culture, Monica also reflects the emptiness of modern life for many:
For Nazneen, the baby’s life was more real to her than her own. His life was full of needs: actual and urgent needs, which she could supply. What was her own life, by contrast, but a series of gnawings, ill-defined and impossible to satisfy?
It is this sense of ennui, and the small nobility in discipline and integrity, that makes this a delightful complex and very human book. A must read to experience a key facet of modern life in London, and many parts of the UK.