Remember your place
A young Bangladeshi girl is sent to London to marry a 40-year-old man
Monica Ali is having one of those years that will encourage the fantasies of a million unpublished writers. Several months before her first book was published, Granta magazine included her in this decade's list of the best 20 young authors in England. The appearance of an actual book did nothing to quell that premature enthusiasm. In fact, "Brick Lane" rose to the British bestseller list this summer and on Tuesday was included in the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Its arrival in America looks equally auspicious. But there's a risk of crushing this sensitive novel beneath a press of praise, like inciting a mob to pick fresh raspberries.
British critics have called her the next Zadie Smith, presumably because they're both young, nonwhite females who blasted onto the literary scene with Booker- nominated bestsellers about immigrant culture in London. But Ali displays none of Smith's pyrotechnics or her sprawling scope and scale. Biology aside, a better comparison would be with Anita Brookner, that non-young, blisteringly white matron of British fiction whose quiet incisive novels scrutinize the plight of lonely people.
The genius of "Brick Lane" lies in Ali's ability to make the peculiar universal while making what's familiar comically odd. Though it's a distinctly interior novel, the larger world resonates all along the edges with discordant strains of political and cultural disruption.
The story opens briefly in Bangladesh, where Nazneen enters the world two months early, first refusing to breathe, then refusing to eat. Although her mother laments each of these potentially lethal developments, she insists, "We must not stand in the way of Fate." Growing up, "not once did Nazneen question the logic of the story of How You Were Left to Your Fate. Indeed, she was grateful for her mother's quiet courage, her tearful stoicism that was almost daily in evidence."
That same pained passivity allows Nazneen to endure the family's decision to send her to London as a teenager to marry a 40-year-old stranger named Chanu. She arrives knowing only two English phrases, "sorry" and "thank you," but they serve her well enough, sitting alone all day in their bleak apartment.
Ali handles this frightened girl with a delicate wit that never slips into condescension or tragedy. Nazneen's dreadful situation is buoyed by her baffled observations of Western life. She overhears two white women trading advice about slimming down their dogs. She sees some boys wearing "tracksuits with big check marks on them as if their clothing had been marked by a teacher who valued, above all else, conformity." Ice skating mystifies her.
Her husband, Chanu, is a hysterically boring blowhard, but she endures patiently, noting his silly hypocrisy and hopeless inadequacy without comment. ("If God wanted us to ask questions," she remembers her mother saying, "he would have made us men.") Every evening, while she carefully cuts his corns, Chanu rubs his monumental belly and blathers on about the faded glories of Bangladeshi culture, the "ignorant types" he must endure at work, and the wonders of his ever-expanding collection of diplomas, course certificates, mail-order degrees, and form letters. (In one case, he's framed the directions to Morley College, where he took a night class.)
Chanu has all the makings of a villain or a fool, but Nazneen never sees him that way. The novel's sensibilities are more refined, and in the end this is a story that exercises our compassion. Ali's gentle humor is half satire, half embrace. She wants us to chuckle over what's villainous and foolish about Chanu, but she also wants us to appreciate his affection for Nazneen, to pity his crushed hopes for success, and to understand the exhausting effort of maintaining his blustering facade.
Finally, a financial crisis forces Chanu to allow his wife to make a little money taking in tailoring work. (The more difficult job of managing the tailor, he reminds her, falls to him.) Through this tiny door to the world, Nazneen manages to leave her apartment, join a fledgling group of British Muslims, and fall in love with another man.
Her adultery produces a terrifying burden of guilt, but it also encourages her growing sense of outrage at her mother's passivity and wakens her to the possibility of shaping her fate rather than accepting it.
Harrowing letters from her eternally optimistic sister in Bangladesh develop this heretical notion more. In fractured English, she describes - sometimes without even realizing it - disastrous relationships and experiences that expose the horrors of misogyny back home.
As her white neighbors become more openly xenophobic and her lover grows more radical, Nazneen finds herself in a world of passions - political and personal - as destructive as the repressed world she considers leaving behind. Her salvation comes not by doing what she's told or by choosing from the options of saint or sinner as outlined for her, but by daring to imagine a life outside those boundaries. Ali follows her progress so closely, so sympathetically that it's a moment of real delight when Nazneen finally cries out, "I will say what happens to me. I will be the one."
In the liberated West, of course, we've long known that women have other options: Madame Bovary can choke on poison, Edna Pontellier can walk into the sea, Thelma and Louise can drive off that cliff. How ironic that a young Muslim woman from Bangladesh should find a path that's neither nihilistic nor self-centered.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.