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.