The British Ali follows her stunning debut (Brick Lane, 2003) with these linked stories set in a Portuguese village.
Alentejo is an agricultural region of Portugal. Outside the village of Mamarrosa, Joao, an old peasant, makes a shocking discovery. His lifelong friend Rui has hanged himself in the woods. Rui was once tortured for his opposition to the Salazar dictatorship; he had also, before his marriage, spent a night making love to Joao. It’s an effective opening story, with its calm ruefulness, and a historical marker for Ali’s look at a contemporary Portuguese backwater, where traditional customs co-exist with cell phones and Internet cafes, and when foreigners (notably Brits) are trickling in. Some are expatriates. There’s the cynical middle-aged writer, Stanton, working on a novel about Blake, and his disreputable neighbors, the Potts. The father is “on the run,” though we don’t know from what; he has a doormat of a wife and a teenaged daughter who’s a slut. The sex-starved Stanton will bed mother and daughter both. Then there are the tourists, also Brits. Young Huw and Sophie have rented a house; Sophie has a history of depression and is experiencing pre-wedding jitters. The locals are on the move too. Twenty-year-old Teresa, who works at a deli, is off to London to work as an au pair; Marco, who left years ago and is rumored to have become a wealthy resort developer, is returning. The whole village is buzzing. Will he put Mamarrosa on the map? He arrives with a shaven head, a cape and enigmatic one-liners. Ali, so sure-footed in developing the immigrant Londoners of Brick Lane, seems at a loss to know what to do with him; the same goes for Stanton and the Potts, who implausibly reform themselves. What’s lacking is the discipline that stand-alone stories might have imposed. The author roams through many voices and perspectives, but the characterizations are superficial.
The drastic change of scene, though maybe necessary for artistic growth, has left Ali oddly adrift.