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An ethnic tale of girl power

Brick Lane A Novel Monica Ali Scribner: 374 pp., $25

September 14, 2003|Marina Budhos | Marina Budhos is the author of two novels, "House of Waiting" and "The Professor of Light," and a nonfiction book, "Remix: Conversations With Immigrant Teenagers."

There's a danger in "firsts," especially novels lauded as the first to depict an ethnic group. In our anthropological zeal to see a new social and cultural experience put down on the page, we can miss what's really going on. We too easily think of these books as giving voice to "authentic" ethnic lives, when in fact they are often more complicated, the collision of a very contemporary sensibility with the raw immigrant experience.

"Brick Lane" by Monica Ali, nominated for the Man Booker Prize, has arrived with all the accompanying "first" labels, since she is the first young author to depict the Bangladeshi immigrant experience in England. Initially her novel brings to mind another virtuosic first: Zadie Smith's "White Teeth," which traced the friendship between a hapless white British man and his Bangladeshi friend.

But the approaches of these two authors are strikingly different. Smith took on the roving, ambitious expanse of multicultural England in a gleeful, ironic romp. Ali takes us into the crooked, narrow streets of Brick Lane, London, a neighborhood crowded with Bengali immigrants, and follows the tight perspective of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi immigrant woman who comes to a slow awakening. At its core, "Brick Lane" is an earnest tale of female empowerment with some of the spirit of the popular British film "Bend It Like Beckham," only "Brick Lane," as a novel should be, is better and deeper, with great flair and sensitivity.

Though the novel is seemingly narrow in focus, that confinement creates an atmosphere of impacted intelligence and power, the sentences jammed up, idiosyncratic, full of marvelous insight, as if the author has crammed all her novelistic ambition into Nazneen's head. Nazneen is the "good" daughter (as opposed to Hasina, her sister, whose difficult life is chronicled in moving, funny letters from Bangladesh). She has been married off to Chanu, a well-meaning but utterly hopeless older man with grand intellectual delusions. Much of the novel spins around Nazneen's slow coming to terms with Chanu. He's maddeningly incompetent, full of pretentious talk. He is eternally gathering petitions for a mobile library, seeking a university degree he never completes and applying for job promotions that never happen. As Nazeen realizes, "He could see. He could comment.... But he could not act."

Throughout, there's an innocent humor -- that of a woman who does not know how poignant and sometimes tragic the little details of her life are. "In the late evening, to the sound of the walls that buzzed their eternal prayer of pipes and water and electricity, Nazneen clipped hair from her husband's nose. The quiet made Nazneen alert. All day and into the evening she was aware of the life around, like a dim light left on in the corner of the room."

Some of the most hilarious moments in the book occur when Chanu invites Dr. Azad, a more accomplished fellow Bangladeshi, to dinner and their conversations thrash at cross-purposes: Chanu rants about British colonialism while Azad worries about Bangladeshi boys in the community falling prey to heroin. Nazneen, ever the passive listener, "marveled at the way this all worked so smoothly: how these two men could find themselves in vehement agreement over their separate topics."

Eventually Chanu becomes a taxi driver but manages to gather more parking tickets than fares, and he borrows from a moneylender, Mrs. Islam, who is a shrill hypocrite of a woman. He becomes a painfully comic portrait of the puffed-up, prideful male slowly ground down by the experience of immigration. Finally it is Nazneen who saves the family financially by doing piecework sewing at home.

This first little step toward independence thrusts Nazneen headlong into change. She meets Karim, a hunky second-generation boy with a hip-pocket cell phone that beeps him when it's time to pray. He supplies her with regular piles of clothes to sew and new ways of feeling and thinking, "feeding her slices of the world." They begin an unlikely torrid affair, even as he drifts deeper into radical Islamic politics. Karim -- like all the men in the book, with their empty posturing -- is ultimately portrayed with a kind of Chaplinesque comic despair.

Nazneen's slow awakening is accompanied by her greater understanding that the men in her life are very limited, even as they've exercised so much control over her fate. Beneath the crooked charm of this book lies a conventional girl-power story of a passive wife who comes to understand that "the power was inside her, that she was its creator."

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