I could not stay engaged with this book even though I am about 150 pages in. I am not sure it was a fair test given the major distraction of being in London right now. By the time I sit down to read I fall asleep. So instead I ended up checking out the movie at the local library and it was also kind of slow, yet sweet. I still don't know if I fully understand all the characters. I had wanted to read it because I am so near where the book was set and have visited Brick Lane many times.
What I liked in reading Chanu, this Bangladeshi man failing from one career to the next as he’s caught under the wheels of the whiteness racism machine, is how he voices the crime of colonialism and makes rightful condemnations of Britain’s Indian Empire. And that was it. Because whatever good qualities Chanu might possess that could redeem his slovenliness, his egotism, and his deluded self-aggrandizement are persistently warped by what is obvious to the reader, and what is always there in the background, defining his character: he doesn’t let his wife go to school.
Nazneen is an imported servant. “Wives who only served and were not served in return” was a phrase that kept coming back to me during this novel, and it’s key to one of the novel’s central dilemmas. Chanu’s hesitation to support Nazneen’s desire to learn English so that she can navigate independently in her new country is a subtle, revolting piece of abuse, and it shapes the rest of the novel. When Nazneen is taught, it is by her daughters. Her daughters, who are made by their father to prove comprehension of the things Chanu only orates to Nazneen - those meaningful academic questions that he discharges impotently, never fulfilled in his ambitions, shooting for accolades (his collection of certificates), but never achieving them; “there was in the world a great shortage of respect and Chanu was famished.” It infuriated me that Chanu values his daughters’ education because they are reflections of himself, part of himself, but his wife is part of the property. Everything is beyond her reach to him; everything, for her, is too difficult to comprehend.
Enough on Chanu. In the later chapters, that’s what I kept groaning to myself, “enough of Chanu already, enough.” Because Brick Lane is Nazneen’s story. The style of the writing, the structure of the novel, everything is built to tell Nazneen’s story. And it’s *brutal*, in the way that only being immersed in the dulled, resigned experiences of a woman whose courage is built on dogged surrender to powers entirely absent from her sense of self can be. Exhausting. An absolutely exhausting read. And what keeps you going are those glimmers of hope, right? Guerilla domestic actions. And early on, Nazneen has a spark of recognition: realizing that what makes her happy is not accepting, but fighting, when it’s for Raqib...
But there is fighting in Shahana. The weakness in Chanu’s, “I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is,” when Shahana’s identity practically burns every page she appears on - granted, it’s her identity as an individual, as herself, and not as a member of Bangladesh culture which is entirely intrusive into her family’s consciousness, an inexorable disaffection. I was wondering, as I read, how much Nazneen’s observations of her daughter inspired her to make an action. An action which is, itself, skipped over in the narrative as small as if a rain had come and Nazneen mentioned it caused a small flood under the window.
This is a book about self-abnegation. Uniquely feminine, highly culturally-enforced self-abnegation. And it was a straight exhausting read for me, so that I hardly noticed how tight Ali was holding the reins. But look at some of these sentences, and reviewing them altogether now I’m seeing this scrupulously-edited poetry: “The sun is large and sickly. It sweats uncomfortably in a hazy sky, squeezed between slabs of concrete.” ; “crackled and leaked a yellow pollution” ; “The light inside the bus was furred up.” Gorgeous language. Imagery with those surreal corners to turn up. But all edited and subdued - to match Nazneen’s voice. Nazneen, who when it occurs to her that there’s a power inside her, and she it’s creator, “dismissed it as conceited.” And what else has she been taught?
She is so convinced that she does not have a striving mind, that her person in its entirety is receiving, is defined and ruled by receptive, passive acceptance, that her greatest revelation is simply: imagination; is simply, “we made each other up.”
To be something, to have a strong identity, Nazneen always approaches this and then shies away from it - because to be significant, and therefore culpable, and therefore stronger than the tide of fate, is anathema her character. Even as she takes up her duty at the end of the novel and
I'm usually a sucker for this type of book: fish out of water, young woman struggling to find her place, immigrant issues. But this book, ugh. It was well-written, but the most interesting characters were on the periphery, and I found the narrator and her family to be a bit bland.
What happens in this book? Almost nothing. Why is it worth the pages? Because it weaves a personal story amongst bigger themes, letting each come to the top in turn and, just when you wonder whether one has been forgotten, sliding it subtley back in. I thought the main character's gradual awakening, slow, slow, slow, with the multiple elements it took, was very believable. Really enjoyed this book.
This book has so much potential. Its a beautiful, powerful story of an ethnic woman. Not something particularly common. And its not a story with a soppy, romantic ending (although, you could be forgiven for thinking it will be). This is a powerful story of a woman doing the best for herself and her family, and gaining some peace and happiness (though its still not all perfect).
But it just doesn't live up to the story. Its not the writing - thats spot-on. Its not the characters - they're fairly dynamic most of the time. It just seems a little overdrawn, a little plain.
The woman has a sordid affair, and yet we are never given an in-depth look at Nazneen's thoughts. It skips to a letter of her sister or she begins reminiscing about the past. And then there are a couple of delusional visions featuring her mother. Her infant son dies, and yet he seems forgotten about for the rest of the novel. Surely there was more to look at their.
This novel is illuminating and encouraging for other women who may feel trapped (by anything - culture, religion, expectations, abuse - anything at all). But it just doesn't go far enough; it is not illuminating enough. There won't be the lasting impact that there could have been. For a novel that is so brilliant, I fear it may be forgotten by me as time goes on.
Rating: 2* of five
A long succession of standard tropes, cliched dialogue, and stock characters made somehow new and fresh by the fact that they're all of Indian descent.
Frankly, I found it lazy and felt the decent author behind the blandness of the book should be given a "D"--not passing, not failing, not much of anything at all. I'll pass on this one's career. Returned to my facility's library shelves, with a slight twinge of guilt for not putting it in the little free library just down the boardwalk instead.
A promising beginning, however, I soon became bored to tears. The story itself isn't that bad, but the storytelling is so boring at times, it's painful.
http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/2275670.html[return][return]I very much enjoyed this portrait of a world that I have occasionally glimpsed via my Bangladeshi relatives; our protagonist, Nazneen, stuck in an arranged marriage and transported to Brick Lane in London at the age of 18, gradually finds her own way to gaining control of her own life, managing her relationships with husband and her lover - both fantasists in their different ways - and transcending the tensions within her own community and between it and its neighbours. Meanwhile the letters she gets from her sister back home become increasingly gut-wrenching. The ending isn't a completely happy one, but then, what ending is?
The opening chapters of 'Brick Lane' convinced me I was reading a novel with the strength and depth of [book:The Poisonwood Bible|7244], [book:Peyton Place|526869], [book:A House for Mr Biswas|5849], etc, etc. A segue of letters from home to cover a period of numerous years passed seemed utter genius. I couldn't wait to engage the literary journey awaiting me.
Then what could be considered the main point of change occurred and things dived from there, landing hard in what felt like horribly cliched Mills & Boons - though far from as exciting (yes, I did read a M&B once - it's a long story; far longer than the M&B was!).
Normally I'll put a book down I'm not enjoying, never to pick it up again, and due to non completion wouldn't consider a review. The early chapters kept me interested - though I can't help but feel in a 'how bad can this get?' way the longer it went on. The answer - very.
I'd never heard of 'Brick Lane' until Goodreads recommended it to me on the back, I think, of my review for [book:A Room of One's Own|18521]. It appealed for a number of reasons - the subject matter in general, but perhaps more so the location. I used to live near Brick Lane and visit the area frequently when working a market stall due to all the wholesale warehouses in the immediate vicinity. The front cover image resonated.
But there the relationship ends. What was being described only very loosely touched the place I know. It could be said this perhaps is due to the main protagonist being of a completely different cultural situation, thus facing a whole different set of complexities. For me, though, the answer lay at the end of book where credits are given - in particular to those who helped the author understand what it was like to live in that area of London . . . Worth noting, the setting for those early strong chapters is something the author has direct experience of.
To be cynical this books smacks of taking an 'in subject' and wanting nothing more than to sell it. Softly, albeit, but that perhaps in one the worst aspects. One of the tension building elements stemming from the midway POC fizzles out into absolutely nothing - all filler, no killer, is the taste one is left with. Though it in fact doesn't fizzle out - it just felt that way. The situation ('Tigers vs Lions' not to give away any spoilers, but to make obvious to what I refer exactly) reaches a head in such a lackluster, uninspiring way, there is no doubt the author is writing of an event of which they have no direct experience, but feel must be present in attempt to capture the mood of the overall subject.
I read a number of other reviews before writing my own - I admit, I had to ask if I was missing something given the many accolades the work has received. Many write of the great characters. But hang on, while this book is a TPN, it's only ever delivered from the view of the main protagonist. Thus we have no character other than her, for never do we know what anyone else is thinking or feeling beyond her assumptions - in this respect, the characters become superficial vacuous vessels merely at the disposal of how many pages the author wishes to run.
The dismissal of Chanu's emotions at the end is, whether they might have been for better or worse, insulting to the reader.
Another aspect of others' reviews - why are the sister's letters written in broken English and not fluent Bangladeshi? This is an intrinsically valid question. Perhaps someone can be so kind as to clarify, but I read the book as the letters being automatically translated and that 'broken English' actually being the form Bangladeshi is delivered in, much like some languages will say 'car red' rather than 'red car'. If it is true, that these letters are delivered in a broken English and the author wants the reader to believe this is how they were written by the sister, then I don't think 'Brick Lane' could be any more patronizing if it tried.