Reading Brick Lane 13 years after it was published, brought on a mix of déjà vu and amazement. Déjà vu because young pissed-off Muslim women and men are still being driven to extreme and textually unfounded versions of their religion by the failure of the country in which they were born to provide them with dignity, financial stability and hope. Amazement because although 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan appear near the end of this epic tale of London’s Whitechapel and the Bangladesh left behind by many of its newest migrants, it ends before the UK/US invasion of Iraq. Thus the UK’s Muslim community’s crucial involvement in organising immense popular opposition to the invasion doesn’t feature: 3 million people marched through London in February 2003 but were ignored by the majority of Labour MPs and by Tony Blair.
I imagine, but I don’t know, that the young Muslims who worked so hard to prevent intelligence service lies and media cowardice and Blair’s version of religious fundamentalism doing their deadly damage, were among those who then turned their backs on UK parliamentary democracy. It had been proved a sham. Today we in the North Atlantic world are more and more at war, not that we suffer direct hits. That’s left to other people and other continents, while our governments pretend they aren’t responsible either for the consequent suffering or the people desperate to escape it. Arms companies, financiers and religious zealots of all hues profit. History is ignored.
The virtue of a classical epic novel is that history is a main character. Tolstoy and George Eliot are its greatest exponents. Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen’s journey from Bangladeshi (East Pakistani) village girl to self sufficient Whitechapel citizen, of her beautiful sister Hasina back ‘home’, of her husband Chanu, a frustrated philosopher, her children Raqib, Shahana and Bibi, her friend Razia, anti-conformist on every front, her fly-by-night lover Karim, the cruel debt shark and userer Mrs Islam, and the multitude of other wonderfully conjured characters inhabiting spice-fragrant and piss stinking Whitechapel 60s estates. The book wouldn’t work without Bangladeshi migrants throwing their experiences, which includes the history of the Brits in India, at each other, and at the UK they, deeply disappointed, find themselves in. British parliamentary democracy? That’s the one that created the Bengali rice famine of 1941-42 in which at least 3 million people perished.
So the good Chanu eventually tells his skinny–jeanned eldest daughter, Chanu the possessor of corns like mini-pyramids which require an eighteen year old wife to trim them along with other unwanted body parts. ‘Before they went out today, she had to cut his hair. She was always cutting bits off him. The dead skin around his corns. His toenails. The fingernails of his right hand, because his left hand could not do the job properly. The fingernails of his left hand because she might as well do that while she had the scissors. The wiry hair that grew from the tops of his ears. And the hair on his head, once every six weeks when Chanu said, “Better smarten up a bit.”’ p90
Husbands don’t permit wives to leave their flats. English lessons are forbidden. College? A den of vice. Chanu has been rightly acknowledged as one of the great characters of English literature for his comic trajectory from realistic ambition – promotion always goes to his white colleagues – to illusory ambition – the computer he owes Mrs Islam for gathering the same dust as his books and papers and the flat’s too many armchairs – to ambition, via taxi driving, realized but sorely compromised. It’s a tribute to human beings’ antipathy to murder – war? ’S ok it’s not murder. It’s defence. The House of Commons said so – that in societies where women are financially powerless unless widowed, like the UK was until 1926, that husbands dead before their time do not litter the streets.
And Brick Lane does indeed belong to Nazneen, married, and her sister Hisani, single. They, unlike their 19th century counterparts Anna and Dorothea, are in command of both story and perspective. We’re inside their heads from start to finish. Ali solves the problem of inter-continental communication by giving Hisani the gift of vivid letter writing. To Nazneen she gives everything else. Hisani thus tells her tale of defiant optimism in the face of violent husband, rapist and pimping landlord, rapacious clients, and by the end of the book, skivvying to middle class Dakar, in, we accept, less than perfect Bengali. Ali doesn’t give the sisters phones. Phone conversations tend not to make good literature because no extra-linguistic language, the stuff of character, is going on, whereas Nazneen’s talents for observation and astute reflection are crucial to her character. ‘When Karim came last time he read from a magazine about the orphan children in refugee camps in Gaza. He was moved and Nazneen watched as the cycle of emotion started turning. It was possible – this she knew – to be deeply touched by one’s own grief on another’s behalf. That he was moved, moved him. As he explained the situation his eyes became watery.’ p275
In a world where metaphor abuse is always with us, Ali is a metaphor queen and therein lies much of her comic talent. Apposite verbs and adjectives flourish – ‘Chanu was disabled with anger.’ p275 – as well as those phrases which Flaubert’s fumigations failed to dispel from his work. When Ali needs to counter the shock of the 2001 Oldham riots as seen on TV in Whitechapel, she writes: ‘The picture changed to daylight and the camera swept across tedious deserted streets, enlivened now and then by the presence of the blackened carcass of a car. In Oldham the roads were pocked with holes and the houses packed together, tight as teeth.’ p276. Comedy can throw horror into sharp relief. Or it can dissipate horror’s impact on our hearts, which, in reading Brick Lane, have been well prepared for the riots. Nazneen’s intelligence – her husband’s, her friends’, her lover’s – has given us the insight we need to understand them.
So it’s a little disappointing that, along with black British women writers of her generation Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy, and Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Monica Ali brings some of the colonial chickens home to roost, but not enough of them, or not fiercely enough. Brick Lane’s final chapters abandon classical fiction, which doesn’t shy away from unadorned tragedy. Ali opts for comforting fantasy. I wish she’d been as intelligent as her heroines and hadn’t written these last two lines: ‘Razia was already lacing her boots. ‘This is England,’ she said. ‘You can do whatever you like.’ p492
Nazneen’s existential struggle has been with the female fatalism her mother fed her. I wanted a less banal resolution. At worst it’s a mendacious one put into the mouth of Razia. Razia is the novel’s truth-sayer. As far as I can remember, the UK in 2003 was only marginally more a land of universal freedom and prosperity than it is now.