Discussion location: Bacchus Bar, an underground cavern of interesting decor and hidey holes.

Chosen by: Clare

Reason for choice: Someone recommended it, enjoy books with cultural and sociological aspects.


“Well, I started it, but didn’t finish” said Clare, who chose the book.

“Didn’t that tell you something!” said the Chair.

“If I had to be one character, I’d be the tattooed woman who died – just to get out of the novel.”

With a record number of members who didn’t manage to finish the book, I could tell it was going to be one of those meetings again…

In contrast to the opening delivered above, Monica Ali’s critically acclaimed debut novel Brick Lane was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize.  Set in London’s Tower Hamlets, it follows the story of eighteen-year old Nazeen who is brought to England from Bangladesh to marry the much older Chanu.  The novel is an in-depth account of the life-span of their relationship, including the birth of three children and death of one, Nazneen’s affair with radical speaker Karim; as well as Nazneen’s flashbacks to her childhood and ongoing letters from her sister Hasina.

To begin with the positives, the novel is clearly well written, with highly vivid imagery which made the novel easy to visualise, in particular Nazneen and Chanu’s oppressive bedroom with a large black wardrobe looming over them and a living room packed full of Chanu’s unfinished furniture projects.  There are also some amusing moments, such as Nazeen’s observations of the eccentricity of British culture, for example, the oddness of having plates on the wall.

Furthermore, Ali’s strength is in her characters which are highly vivid and imaginable, in particular, the nosy and somewhat corrupt Mrs Islam with her ralgex mist and bag full of medicine; and the unconventional Razia, with her short haircut and tracksuits, not caring what others think of her.  It is also heartening to follow Nazneen’s development from accepting her fate and speaking two words of English to gradually leaving the flat, asking where the toilets are, and finally taking control of her future and summoning the courage to tell Chanu that she does not want to leave England with him.

Moreover, despite the criticism directed at Ali that she had negatively portrayed Sylheti’s, Ali’s depictions of the culture are startlingly accurate to those who have experienced it, for example, the normality of neighbours and friends dropping in, not to ask how Nazneen is, but to sit and gossip and then leave; and are an insight to readers who have not experienced this type of cultural difference. The interaction between the two cultures of English and non-English (such as the pamphlet campaigns) are also interesting, if not slightly demoralising.

Indeed, neither culture was presented particularly favourably, with the frustrating behaviour towards women in the Bangladeshi culture, and the treatment of immigrants by the English which made for uncomfortable reading. This cultural angst was played out in the controversial character of Chanu, who is at times admirably pathetic in his delusional faith that his try-hard attitude will be recognised in England, yet ends up being a taxi driver who hates British culture and moves back home.  Yet at other times, Chanu is unforgiveable in his attempts to control his wife and family through violent threats and belittling, making his daughters turn the pages of his books and not allowing his wife to learn English. Despite this, the novel was not unhappy, despite its sometimes unpleasant content, and ends with Nazneen fulfilling her obsession with ice-skating (if not a little twee).

On the contrary, the main criticism of the novel is the sheer volume of information, in which there is far too much detail in the mundane; any action is so drawn out that it loses its power; and every sentence, paragraph and chapter takes a frustratingly long time to go anywhere.  Perhaps this is not a criticism of Ali, but her editors who needed to massively edit and condense this tome.  Whilst this might to serve to embody the mundane nature of Nazneen’s life, it is the reader that is punished. Moreover, the broken-English letters from Hasina were difficult to read, and although they demonstrate cultural contrast, the novel seems better suited to being a study novel rather than a reader’s novel.

Despite the huge volume of text, the novel fails to explain why a radical muslim would have an affair with a married woman, which seems somewhat contradictory, and why Karim is later relieved that Nazneen does not want to marry him as this seemingly might have redeemed him.  The novel would greatly have benefitted from cutting some of the mundane details in favour of a deeper explanation of the basis of their affair.

Ali’s debut novel has a huge amount of potential and her skill at animating and developing character is impressive, however this was weighed down with an unnecessary volume of mundane content, making the novel a chore to read.  Indeed, the film adaptation of the novel seeks to resolve some of these issues, being shorter and giving life to the strong visual elements of the novel.  Furthermore, the film portrays a more humorous and good-hearted Chanu, and more of why Nazneen’s affair with Karim occurred.  Perhaps we should stick to the film, or request an abridged version.

Overall rating: 5/10