Brick Lane * a novel by Monica Ali book review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Is it better than our own country, or is it worse? If it is worse, then why is he here? If it is better, why does he complain?

What would you do if you were a Bengali girl of nearly 19 married off from a village into an English town to a balding 40-year old fat man who has pretentious outlooks on his life and no desires for his new bride? What if you can’t speak English and you don’t have any skills or the only friends are gossiping neighbours from the same community?

What if the only way to live you were taught is to accept anything coming your way without complaint or fight? What would you do to escape?

If God wanted us to ask questions, he would have made us men.’

Read online here:

Ali’s first book, short listed for the Booker Prize, and named in the same year by Granta as one of Great Britain’s best young writers.

This exciting and deeply moving debut novel follows the tumultuous life of Nazneen from her birth in a Bangladeshi village hut, to her arranged marriage to Chanu and the subsequent move to London’s Tower Hamlets.

Nazneen’s inauspicious entry to the world, an apparent stillbirth on the hard mud floor of a Bangladeshi village hut, imbues in her a sense of fatalism that she carries across continents when she is married off to Chanu. Her life in London’s Tower Hamlets is, on the surface, calm. For years, keeping house and rearing children, she does what is expected of her.

The sun is large and sickly. It sweats uncomfortably in a hazy sky, squeezed between slabs of concrete. There is barely enough sky to hold it. Below, the communal bins ring the courtyard like squat metal warriors, competing in foulness, contemplating the stand-off. 

I thoroughly disliked Chanu, pompous middle-aged man with more talk than walk. He tried to climb the ladder and get a promotion and claimed racism when he was overlooked for it over and over again. It’s only when they dropped by unannounced by Dr. Azad’s house that they find their family friend had a very western wife with a sharp tongue and a boatload of family money that actually helped the doctor succeed. It’s the wife, with rust coloured hair and purple nails like talons who puts Chanu in his place with a well placed remark. I nearly cheered.

 ‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’

‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’

‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family. I’m talking—’


She is from back home too and manages to express in a few single sentences that the issue that both Chanu and Nazneed and most of the expats are facing in London was the trouble getting assimilated.

 ‘Listen, when I’m in Bangladesh I put on a sari and cover my head and all that. But here I go out to work. I work with white girls and I’m just one of them. If I want to come home and eat curry, that’s my business. Some women spend ten, twenty years here and they sit in the kitchen grinding spices all day and learn only two words of English.’ She looked at Nazneen who focused on Raqib. ‘They go around covered from head to toe, in their little walking prisons, and when someone calls to them in the street they are upset. The society is racist. The society is all wrong. Everything should change for them. They don’t have to change one thing. That,’ she said, stabbing the air, ‘is the tragedy.’

Yet Nazneen walks a tightrope stretched between her daughters’ embarrassment and her husband’s resentments. Chanu calls his elder daughter the little memsahib. ‘I didn’t ask to be born here,’ say Shahana, with regular finality.

Into that fragile peace walks Karim. He sets questions before her, of longing and belonging; he sparks in her a turmoil that reflects the community’s own; he opens her eyes and directs her gaze — but what she sees, in the end, comes as a surprise to them both.

While Nazneen journeys along her path of self-realization, a way haunted by her mother’s ghost, her sister Hasina, back in Bangladesh, rushes headlong at her life, first making a ‘love marriage’, then fleeing her violent husband. Woven through the novel, Hasina’s letters from Dhaka recount a world of overwhelming adversity. Shaped — yet ultimately not bound — by their landscapes and memories, both sisters struggle to dream themselves out of the rules prescribed for them.

Beautifully rendered and, by turns, both comic and deeply moving, Brick Lane establishes Monica Ali as one of the most exciting new voices in fiction.

You can spread your soul over a paddy field, you can whisper to a mango tree, you can feel the earth beneath your toes and know that this is the place, the place where it begins and ends. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks? The bricks will not be moved.

I cried a little when Chanu and Nazneen lost their first child, a bubbly boy and was very happy when they had two additional daughters. I was angry when this man would not look for a job and instead kept on gathering different certificates that would only sit and gather dust in the wardrobe and to make matters worse, he started borrowing money from a local woman who was known for her insane interest rates. He purchases a computer for himself and to remove any type of guilt, he also buys his wife a sowing machine that she needed. Nazneen keeps on thinking she should get a job and Chanu – I think – is slowly encouraging it but not outright. He just says he wouldn’t be as closed minded as the other men thinking a wife that works is hiding a man who can’t provide for her. Does this mean he wants her to support his lazy ways?

I also found that the author took some time to show how first generation migrant’s children are rebelling against the set ways from way younger – they want to speak English, they want jeans, they reject anything that has to do with their back country. Eye-rolling at the mention of Bangladesh, at the flowers that grow there. There’s nostalgia in the parents, there’s a big unknown from the kids. Threats only seem to work a short way.

‘What is the wrong with you?’ shouted Chanu, speaking in English.

‘Do you mean,’ said Shahana,’ “What is wrong with you?”‘ She blew at her fringe. ‘Not “the wrong”.’

He gasped hard as if she had punched him in the stomach. For a few seconds his jaw worked frantically. ‘Tell your sister,’ he screamed, reverting to Bengali, ‘that I am going to tie her up and cut out her tongue. Tell the memsahib that when I have skinned her alive she will not be looking so pleased with herself.’

Chanu keeps on talking at people rather to them and glorifying the Muslim religion and finding faults in others. Never in himself.

‘Dark Ages,’ said Chanu, and his face flinched from the insult. ‘This is what they are calling it in these damn Christian books. Is this what they teach you in school?’ He threw the book on the floor. ‘It was the Golden Age of Islam, the height of civilization. Don’t forget it. Take pride, or all is lost.’

The story of Nazneen seems to stop every now and then in the book and the focus moves to her sister which stayed behind. Her story is also heartbreaking but in different ways – from running to get married for love, to becoming a factory worker, to being fired for alleged indecent behaviour – to becoming a prostitute in order to pay the bills, to getting married (or almost married) to an albino guy with blue eyes who then tossed her aside when she didn’t look the same as when he found her. She’s working as a live in nanny and maid to a rich couple and she’s happy that she has another shot at life, even though she sleeps on a mat on the floor of the baby’s room.

She’s soothing the ex-model wife with assurances that yes, she’s prettier than her friend and yes, she’s helping the destitute women – like her. And all the time, she’s kissing another woman’s kids and taking care of their boo-boos.

 When she smile she put her head back and show all her teeth. All my life I look for one thing only for love for giving and getting and it seem such a thing full of danger can eat you alive and now I stop the looking it come right up to me and show all it tiny little teeth.

I think what it boils down to is a small comparison between two women at different points of life. One that was sent into an arranged marriage and one who broke the will and made her own path – as much as it was allowed by others. Who is the lucky one? The one who can choose her destiny or the one who lets destiny walk past with no effort to change it?

He began to move again. Nazneen followed. For a moment she saw herself clearly, following her husband, head bowed, hair covered, and she was pleased. In the next instant her feet became heavy and her shoulders ached.

It’s a heavy burden – to be inactive. Hitched a ride on the wrong bandwagon. Would her life been different if Chanu was a jute worker? Or a doctor? Is it the male / patriarch who decides where money goes and how it’s spent or the small voice of need?

fate must be met with indifference. […] Whichever way, it does not matter.

The only time Nazneen shows any signs of life and a pulse to be fair, was when she takes on a younger lover. Karim – he initially was just the middle man bringing her sowing scraps to turn into money but then he becomes a revolutionary leader pushing the young Muslims in the community to take on the Bengal Tigers.

I loved the passages where Nazneen finally becomes a woman.

He was the first man to see her naked. It made her sick with shame. It made her sick with desire. They committed a crime. It was a crime and the sentence was death. In between the sheets, in between his arms, she took her pleasure desperately, as if the executioner waited behind the door. Beyond death was the eternal fire of hell and from every touch of flesh on flesh she wrought the strength to endure it. Though they began with a gentle embrace, tenderness could not satisfy her, nor could she stand it, and into her recklessness she drew him like a moth to a flame.

As most affairs, it only worked to draw attention of her current life and infused with new passion, she found that she loved her daughters and even her big-bellied husband.

She spent more time talking to her daughters, and they surprised her with their intelligence, their wit and their artless sensitivity. She served her husband and she found that he was a caring husband, a man of integrity, educated, and equipped with a pleasing thirst for knowledge. She did her work and she discovered that work in itself, performed with a desire for perfection, was capable of giving satisfaction. She cleaned the flat and even wiping the floor after the toilet had flooded was not so tiresome if it was done with a song on the lips and in the heart. It was as if the conflagration of her bouts with Karim had cast a special light on everything, a dawn light after a life lived in twilight. It was as if she had been born deficient and only now been gifted the missing sense.

It was such a good read. In the end, the relationships that matter are the ones you forge yourself. With Razia, with the girls, even with Chanu. The ending was bittersweet and kinda happy – she doesn’t fly to Bangladesh with Chanu and the girls, she stays in England and makes her own fashion along with some other women from the block. Chanu goes on his own and as any endeavour he ever started – sometimes it’s going well, sometimes not so well. Karim disappears after being broken up with. Razia’s kid escapes his drug addiction. The coucil and the news agents come to enquire about the Towers and nothing ever changes.

Brick is the only one that stays behind.

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