Everyday life requires courage. That simple truth is the foundation of this fine debut about a young Bangladeshi woman in London, struggling to make sense of home, family, Islam, and even adultery.
You’re only 18 when an arranged marriage whisks you off to a faraway land whose language you can’t understand. Your husband is middle-aged and ugly as sin. What for Westerners would be a fate worse than death is for Ali’s heroine Nazneen fate, period. A devout Moslem, she has inherited her mother’s stoic acceptance of God’s will, even heeding her husband Chanu’s advice not to leave their apartment in the grim projects on her own; people would talk. Chanu is happy to have acquired “an unspoilt girl. From the village.” He’s a gentle but insufferably verbose man, a low-level bureaucrat. He’s also a born loser, and Ali’s masterly portrayal mixes mordant humor with a full measure of pathos. The excitement here comes in watching Nazneen’s new identity flower on this stony soil. Motherhood is the first agent of change. Her firstborn dies in infancy, but her daughters Shahana and Bibi thrive. A power shift occurs when Shahana rebels against her father, an ineffectual martinet; Nazneen the peacemaker holds the family together. When Chanu falls into the clutches of the moneylender Mrs. Islam (a sinister figure straight out of Dickens), Nazneen becomes a breadwinner, doing piecework at home and thus meeting the middleman Kazim, who is also an activist fighting racism. They become lovers; and again Nazneen sees herself as submitting to fate. But when Chanu, increasingly beleaguered, announces their imminent return to Bangladesh, Nazneen asserts herself. On one day of wrenching suspense, she deals forcefully with Mrs. Islam, Kazim, and Chanu, and emerges as a strong, decisive, modern woman. The transformation is thrilling.
Newcomer Ali was born in Bangladesh and raised in England, where Brick Lane has been acclaimed, and rightly so: she is one of those dangerous writers who sees everything.