Details: (c) 2003 Monica Ali; Pub Scribner 2004; ISBN 0-7432-4331-5
Verdict: Brick Lane is not bad, but too didactic to be as good as it should be.
Reasons for reading it: Everybody made a big fuss about it when it was published, and I was very interested in a novel set in the immigrant community of the east end. I was particularly drawn by the title because Brick Lane used to be synonymous with poor Jewish immigrants so it feels like part of my heritage, and I wanted to compare the modern situation of Asian immigrants with the stories I've heard.
How it came into my hands: loreid generously lent it to me. (And I then I was an idiot and failed to give it back when we had a joint party last month, even though I had it in my bag ready to return. Sorry, Loreid!)
I really wanted to like Brick Lane, and indeed it has plenty of good qualities. They're just rather over-shadowed by the "look at me, I'm teaching clueless white do-gooders all about Bengali culture in the form of a novel" aspect. It would have been a superlative Guardian op-ed, but it's too slight for a whole novel. The characterization is decent, and the plot avoids the most obvious clichés you could get to with a starting set-up of a naive girl shipped from Bangladesh for an arranged marriage to an older man. I did like Chanu as a character; Ali maintains real sympathy for him while making it perfectly clear why Nazneen was miserable in the marriage.
The biggest flaw is that too much of the plot is transparently driven by the didactic need to demonstrate various things to the reader, rather than by the internal causes of the novel's own momentum. Even though it's generally an enjoyable story with a decently constructed plot arc, that really wrecks any possible sense of immersion. The letters from Nazneen's sister back home in Bangladesh about running away to make a love marriage which turns abusive and eventually having to turn to prostitution to support herself feel a lot like overkill.
As a didactic exercise, Brick Lane is reasonably successful. There is some acute observation of things like the generational conflict, the way that religion and culture intersect, and the effects of racism and xenophobia. And there are plenty of details to flesh out the impression of specifically Bangladeshi culture as opposed to generic immigrant experiences. The constant repetition of educational points is a bit grating, but they are useful points. Nazneen is pigeonholed and made invisible because even liberals can't see past their stereotype of poor oppressed veiled Muslim woman. The media tends to make up a lot of stupid stories about gang violence, Islamic extremism and the like which don't really reflect reality. Poverty is bad, and it's extra bad when mixed with racism.
Generally, I wish this book had been as good the hype. Ali undoubtedly has talent, but her Message obscures the best of her writing.