Reading Brick Lane

The story of an immigrant family in inner-city London is bound to entail some pain, some humour and a lot of cultural adjustment. Brick Lane includes all of that and more.It is told from the perspective of a Bangladeshi village-girl, Nazneen, whose tale makes her the imperfect heroine of the novel. The young Nazneen is married off to Chanu, an aging opportunist who takes her back with him to London. Chanu never seems to get his big career break, and gradually becomes more and more disillusioned with life on Brick Lane. Nazneen, meanwhile, is trying to adjust to life in an alien culture, without any family and with a husband she finds unappealing. She tells herself that she must resign herself to her ‘Fate’, the way her mother did at the time of Nazneen’s birth, when the baby Nazneen nearly died. But, gradually, the force of will begins to grow in Nazneen. After losing her first child to a sudden illness, Nazneen feels anger towards the attitudes she was raised with, which encouraged women to swallow their ambitions and inclinations and accept whatever was thrown their way.

Nazneen keeps in touch with her sister, Haseena, who is abused and disgraced by a string of men until she gives in to the pressure of prostitution in order to survive in Bangladesh. Nazneen longs to help her sister, but her situation in London renders her incapable. This is until she decides to work for a sewing business, through which she meets the young radical, Karim. Nazneen’s affair with Karim marks the beginning of her rebellion from the oppressive values she was brought up with, but all the while, Nazneen bears an affection for her homeland which she cannot abandon.

The resolution of the novel creates a sense of realism – there is no simple way to live ‘happily ever after’, but there are hard choices that leave us with traces of hope. Nazneen refuses Karim’s offer to marry him, because she tells him that they ‘made each other up’. Their affair was an attempt to escape or uncover parts of their own identities, and Nazneen knows that it does not have a future. Nazneen chooses to stay in London with her two growing daughters while her husband goes back to Dhakka. It is not easy to sum up why Nazneen makes the decisions she does, but the novel conveys all of this in its own subtle way. As alienating as the East-end once was to Nazneen, it grows to become her home, and the home of her daughters.

The prose of the novel is versatile and colourful, full of humorous dialogues and entangled sub-plots. Although the novel is written in the third-person, it is expressed from Nazneen’s perspective as she grows from a naïve immigrant into a conscientious and independent woman. Monica Ali writes in a style that is full of description and detail, about a predicament which most immigrants can identify with.

Months after reading the novel, I can still picture Nazneen with her daughters, carrying out her responsibilities with a mixture of faith and determination. I find it hard to believe she does not actually exist in real life, but then I guess she might exist in more ways than I realise.

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