Two summers ago, when I was studying for my doctoral qualifying exam in earnest (and seriously, it feels SO GOOD to write about my degree work in the past tense), I read a lot of critical sources that pointed to “essential” works of contemporary British fiction. One work that got batted around quite a bit was Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. I’d purchased it in a Goodwill sale some time ago, and decided it was high time to work through the Unread books on my shelf (sidenote: if you’re my friend on Goodreads, you may be wondering about my selection in books. Here’s your answer: I’m alternating between a whole bunch of books I owned and have lugged around for YEARS with audiobooks for my travels. It’s a bit dizzying, I admit).
Brick Lane has probably drawn a bunch of comparisons to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. It’s both a fair and unfair comparison. Both feature a decades-long saga of family identity and tensions of cultural and national selfhood. But the spiritual and distinctly feminist focus of Brick Lane sets it apart as an interesting examination of finding a “room of one’s own” while remaining true to one’s loyalties and upholding the cultural expectations in play. Nazneen is the protagonist, left to her fate after being declared stillborn by the midwife who birthed her. Nazneen, however, determine to discover her way in the world, even when it means an arranged marriage to a much older man. Her life is a series of delights and duties that clash with the lure of desire and passion.
This is a worthy read, but it is long and slow. You have to be in the right place to invest in the richness of the story, and if you’re not in a patient mood, I can easily see how this would seem like a lesser version of White Teeth. But I think the development of Nazneen’s character is richly realized, and well worth the effort (for me, at least).