Good reads: Brick Lane by Monica Ali
January 14, 2007
“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
” Søren Kierkegaard
Although this is my 40th column for the Tahoe Bonanza and the northtahoeliving.com, it is my very first one for the Tahoe World and the Sierra Sun and I am very excited to be able to interface with more readers around the Basin. I look forward to hearing from you and welcome any reviews, suggestions for the Good Reads List, personal poetry, or what your book group is reading in the next several months.
Before beginning this week’s review, I’d like to share with you two pieces of unrelated information that seem to have relevance to the importance of this book of fiction.
First, on Oct. 13, 2006 Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yanus and the Grameen Bank, which he created, won the Nobel Peace Prize for leveraging small loans into major social change for impoverished families. Microfinance, as it has come to be known, is lending to poor, often illiterate people who have no collateral, no business experience and who normally cannot borrow from banks. Loans are small, usually under $100.
The microfinance programs are sustained by joint liability. Peer groups of less than a dozen clients guarantee each other’s loans and a default by one could result in the entire group being penalized. However, repayment rates exceed 95 percent.
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Second, in 2003 the book’s author, Monica Ali, whose father is Bangladeshi and mother is English, was named one of the 20 best British novelists under the age of 40 by the internationally respected English literary magazine Granta.
This award is given only once a decade. In 2003, the book “Brick Lane” won the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year and the W.H. Smith People’s Choice Award, and was short-listed for the 2003 Guardian First Book Award, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, and the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award. Six months after the book was published and had become critically acclaimed, a community group representing Bangladeshi in the UK wrote the book’s publisher, Random House, as well as the chairman of the Booker Prize judges, an 18-page letter complaining about comments made by one of the main characters in this work of fiction, calling the book “shameful” and portraying Bangladeshis as “ignorant” and “economic migrants.”
Brick Lane is a contemporary novel tracing the life of Nazneen, a young woman born in a small village in Bangladesh. She is sickly at birth and not expected to survive, so nothing is done to save her. Much to everyone’s surprise, she lives and fate is accepted as a role in her life.
After her younger sister Hasina flees the village and marries her husband for love, Nazneen consents to an arranged marriage by her father to Chanu, a man 20 years her senior. Knowing no English, she travels to England to live in the Bangladesh community in Tower Hamlets, a public housing project in London’s east end with a long history of being home to immigrants.
Her 40-year-old husband, Chanu is a kind but somewhat hopeless, under-performing individual searching for betterment only to be overlooked time and time again. His dream to become successful and return to Bangladesh a wealthy man is unfulfilled.
We follow Nazneen as she experiences her new, very foreign culture through loneliness, curiosity, friendships, parenting, and financial uneasiness. This leads her to begin sewing at home to make ends meet, and into her life comes Karim, an attractive, politically active young man who delivers her work and expands her world.
At the same time, through letters from her sister, there is always that pull from the homeland. We learn of the sister’s life and conditions in Bangladesh: Fleeing her violent husband, she finds work in a garment factory but is being kept by a wealthy factory owner. Ultimately upon rejection by the factory and by him, she has little choice but to become a prostitute.
Ali’s compassionate and insightful character development, blended with exquisite detail and well-written prose, allows the reader to relate and appreciate the complexities of their lives. Her comic touch personalizes the situation as well as the individuals as you witness the evolving maturation and understanding of their domestic lives.
Jan. 14 – John Dos Passo (1896)
Jan. 18 – A.A. Milne (1882)
Adults (fiction): The Collection of Stories of Amy Hempel
Adult (non-fiction): The Places In Between by Rory Stewart
Young Adult (ages 13 to 17): The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Juvenile (Fourth to Sixth grade): The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Children (Second to Third grade): A Million Dots by Andrew Clements
Editor’s note: This is the first of Barbara Perlman-Whyman’s columns to be featured in the Sierra Sun. Look for future Good Reads on Fridays.