This one is important, and perhaps more important than its author might have originally imagined. In an age where religion and other assorted superstitions are making something of a comeback, here is a novel that tenaciously works, on every front, to deconstruct all the nonsense about gods, fate and the god-given, subordinate role of women. That the novelist achieves this with much humour and empathy for her characters, whilst maintaining throughout a growing level of tension, is an achievement in itself. That the novel stands out, fifteen years on, as a searing indictment of all things patriarchal and metaphysical, is its real achievement.
Men (and women) make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. I suspect this little dialectical gem from the grumpy old German professor is as true for individuals as it is for collective humanity. Monica Ali, in her ground-breaking Brick Lane, created a wonderful character in Nazneen, a character who, along with her sister, learn step by painful step, to reject a passive attitude to their grim circumstances, and take matters into their own hands. Nazneen’s mother, back in the village in what is now Bangladesh, insisted to her daughters that they must resign themselves to their pre-determined fate. There was nothing to do but to stoically suffer. That was true for all people but especially true for poor Indian girls. Live or die, fate would determine all. But tiny step by step, Nazneen rejects this stultifying patriarchal concept and seeks, within the material confines that she finds herself, to attempt to make her own fate.
Brick Lane was Ali’s first novel but there is absolutely nothing faltering or amateurish about it. On the contrary, every character is convincingly drawn, and every situation feels fully authentic. Nazneen’s husband, Chanu, is a perfect example of how Ali can imbue her characters with both depth and contradiction. Nazneen is landed with Chanu as a result of an arranged marriage back in Bangladesh. But he becomes so much more than the arch-typical Indian patriarch. Ali mercilessly ridicules him for his pomposity yet he somehow emerges as a beacon of modernity and rationality. And behind his ludicrous patriarchal lecturing is more than a hint of kindness and empathy. Chanu’s character is a difficult balancing act but I sense that Ali gets him down to perfection. And through Chanu, Ali is able to make many damning indictments about racism, colonialism and western hypocrisy.
Nazneen’s sister, still living a precarious life back in Bangladesh, also revels herself to be both a helpless victim of her circumstances yet determined to take some control over her life. From the very beginning she rejects the forced marriage that is planned for her and instead escapes with her own love partner. It doesn’t work out but through necessity and self-determination, she survives the harsh realities of being a single women in Bangladesh’s teeming metropolis.
And significantly, Nazneen’s daughters, particularly the eldest, are also convincingly portrayed as independently-minded. There is no going back to village life and all that will inevitably entail for Shahana.
Ali, in Brick Lane, has convicingly created a South AsianTower Hamlets family with all the tensions and contradictions that one might expect but never does it lapse into cliched stereotype. This family is real and will live on in Britain’s literary memory for the foreseeable future. Each of the female characters, in their own authentic ways, are seeking to cast off passivity in favour of personal intervention. As part of a desperately poor and marginalised immigrant community, their options are limited, but nevertheless they are determined to seize whatever opportunities that present themselves; a job, social interaction, education and plans for the future. Anything, but remain a prisoner within the patriarchal, feudal mode of existence. Modernity beckons.
Brick Lane is an uplifting tale, as relevant today, if not more so, than the day it was written. Read it if you have not done so, re-read it if you get the chance, because it raises with magnificent clarity an unresolved question; has the plight of the world’s female population improved over the past fifty years or is it still stuck in a stultifying patriarchal impasse? Obviously, women in the developing world are still suffering endemic violence and stunted lives. Despite the best efforts of various UN agencies, thing appear not to improve. And in the so-called developed world? Definitely, there are now more opportunities for women, through education and legal protections, to create a fulfilling life, but the entrenched patriarchs are forever looking at ways to reverse the gains. Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaids Tale, should be warning enough. And the Trump Presidency is truly sobering. Nothing can be taken for granted. Everything must be fought for and defended.