Brick Lane by Monica Ali


There are all kinds of layers and themes to this novel. It deals, for example, with the difficulties of immigration and integration (turns out that moving to a new country is especially difficult if you have a very different color, religion, and cultural background than the majority of people living there); with the family ties and social background that can determine what you do and what you can do with your life; and then with a bit of contemporary history, and Muslim and non-Muslim tensions (9/11, demonstrations and anti-demonstrations).

I think the story-line that deals with history and with the tensions of society is the weakest one in the novel. I noticed already a few years back, when I was reading In the Kitchen, that Monica Ali is much better when she concentrates on individual lives and expresses big and important ideas through those individual lives than when she writes about intangible, faceless organizations, like in this novel – all I can make of this Muslim and non-Muslim story-line here is that a group called Tigers and another group wage a pamphlet-war in the neighborhood and organize who-knows-what-kind-of demonstrations and marches, with a pretty much unknown goal in mind.

But all this is just an aside, because what made me endlessly intrigued here was the story of the novel’s protagonist. Reading her story often reminded me of Kate Chopin’s Awakening, and it made me realize that not much has changed in the past 100 years.

The protagonist is Nazneen, a village girl from Bangladesh, who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man from Bangladesh living in London. Nazneen is a good and obedient daughter with a strong desire to do her duty, and with an equally strong belief that everything is controlled by Allah/Fate, so everything that was meant to happen will happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

There’s an interesting contrast between Nazneen and her younger sister, the beautiful Hasina, who decides to take her fate into her own hands (which leads to catastrophic results, by the way, as we learn from the letters the eternally absent Hasina sends to her sister). Hasina, who violently rejects the mentality that we’re here on this earth to stoically withstand the amount of suffering that was destined for us, leads an entirely different kind of life than Nazneen, but her successes and failures don’t indicate that, after all, Nazneen’s road was the better choice. And they don’t indicate, either, that Hasina’s road was better. (Fortunately, there’s very little moralizing in this novel.)

The story is basically about how the ever-obedient Nazneen very slowly gains her independence and learns (and accepts the responsibility) to lead her own life. Nazneen’s slowly awakening desire for independence and her first small independent actions are very natural, there’s no big breakthrough or anything dramatic here. Nazneen isn’t exactly a feminist, her husband is not an abusive brute from whom she is forced to run away, and if we only look at the surface, her life in London isn’t bad at all – so theoretically, there’s no reason for her to rebel. And yet – there’s a curiosity in her, and a small (and then bigger and bigger) desire to see what she can do on her own. Which is wonderful and very human.

And the way Monica Ali describes Nazneen’s awakening right from the beginning is very subtle. For example, once Nazneen goes for a walk in big and sinful London, she gets lost, she has to pee, and anyway, she’s just a Muslim woman who isn’t even supposed to walk about on her own – so of course, Nazneen panics, but then she manages to solve the difficult situation, she’s proud, and she’d like to share her moment of triumph with someone. Or later on, she gradually discovers her body and she even entertains wild thoughts about shaving her legs. And still later, she becomes bold enough to open her mouth and say what she wants.

And this whole story of awakening is drawn very sensitively and gently – and it doesn’t for a moment seem that there’s a fixed end to it.

And just by the way: this is a very funny novel, too, with a bunch of great characters who look like caricatures yet remain alive, authentic and understandable, and it’s also a novel with a lot of smells and colors, which make me want to walk down on Brick Lane.

In the Kitchen by Monica Ali

I love good first paragraphs. Based on what I knew about this novel beforehand, I assumed that I would probably like it, but when I got around to actually reading it, the first paragraph convinced me that this was going to be a good book. Here it is:

When he looked back, he felt that the death of the Ukrainian was the point at which things began to fall apart. He could not say that it was the cause, could not say, even, that it was a cause, because the events which followed seemed to be both inevitable and entirely random, and although he could piece together a narrative sequence and take a kind of comfort in that, he had changed sufficiently by then to realize that it was only a story he could tell, and that stories were not, on the whole, to be trusted. Nevertheless, he fixed the beginning at the day of the Ukrainian’s death, when it was the following day on which, if a life can be said to have a turning point, his own began to spin.

I didn’t include such a long quote because I have nothing to say about the book and I want to use up some space, or just because I feel some companionship with Monica Ali and her rambling, exceedingly long sentences (although I do feel this), but because for me, this paragraph is an example of the perfect way to start a novel. Sure, there’s death in it, and mystery, and tension, but what is more and what amazes me is the fact that there’s a whole lot of suspense and doubt in it, peppered with some irony: I’m at the beginning of a story, I’m curious about what’s going to happen, I want to lay my doubts aside (or suspend my disbelief) and then right in the first paragraph I’m warned that stories are not to be trusted. And a rich and philosophical paragraph like this – which implies a lot and keeps even more in the dark – creates the perfect start for a good novel.

In the Kitchen is about Gabriel Lightfoot, a 42-year-old chef. Gabriel is the head cook of the restaurant at Imperial, a renowned London hotel. The kitchen of the restaurant is a truly multicultural mix: refugees from all around the world, legal and illegal immigrants and an occasional English citizen all work under the supervision of Gabe, and even though the tension arising from the cultural and other differences is sometimes almost unbearable, things are, basically, going fine. Gabriel considers himself a success, and he plans to open up his own restaurant in the near future, then marry his girlfriend, then start a family. This nice life-plan is, however, disrupted by the death of one of the hotel’s employees, a Ukrainian man, Yuri. Even though it seems that his death was caused by an accident and there’s nothing mysterious in it, Gabriel, for some reason, cannot get it out of his head, and he gets more entangled in the case (which doesn’t really exist anyway) when he meets and starts up a strange relationship with Lena, a prostitute who used Yuri’s room as a hide-out when she ran away from her pimp.

In the course of this relationship, Gabriel has to face an irrational and brutal reality, a reality he casually ignored so far, being much too occupied with the compilation of nice to-do lists and with his attempts to live according to the items on his lists and always keep himself and his life organized and well-planned. But as Gabriel learns the life-stories of Lena, Yuri and the other people working the kitchen (or the life-stories so abridged and bowdlerized as to suit the ears of a Western person), he has to review some of his earlier assumptions about the basic rights of man (such as the right to control your own life) and he has to realize that some rights he always considered inalienable are in fact not natural for a lot of people to have. Facing these thoughts and doubts, Gabriel slowly loses his inner balance, since from the minute he starts to entertain doubts about his control over his own life, he really starts to lose this (albeit illusory) control.

Monica Ali depicts Gabriel’s mental breakdown in a convincing and bewildering fashion: the disintegration happens gradually and you cannot pinpoint the event when Gabriel loses his footing. Of course, the fact that he faces the so far hidden reality of others and, parallel to this, he faces his own selfish, comfortable and insensitive soul carries the possibility of redemption, of living a better, more human life. And actually I think the depiction of this hope is the only weak point in the novel: contrasted to the things going on in the first 500 pages, the last 50 pages seem somewhat forced, unbelievable and a bit too optimistic. (But perhaps this is not a problem – since we are not to trust stories anyway.)

Despite the somewhat labored ending, however, this is a very good novel. It tells a proper story; its protagonist is a fully believable and human character; besides, it features a lot of valid social commentary; it’s humorous; and there are intriguing and sensible thoughts and questions in it – with the answers not provided in advance.

By the way, In the Kitchen reminds me of some other novels, for one reason or the other, namely: Money by Martin Amis, The Society of Others by William Nicholson, and Problemski Hotel by Dimitri Verhulst. I won’t go into details concerning these novels, but you may check the hyperlinks pointing to my relevant posts to see the connections.