My rating: 4 of 5 stars
From the Fall 2010 VPL Book Sale.
Read in April 2014.
Nazneen is born in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1967. She’s barely alive when she’s born and her mother takes a “what will be will be” approach, leaving Nazneen’s fate to Fate. Nazneen follows this philosophy throughout her life.
When she’s 18, her father arranges a marriage for her with a fortyish man, Chanu, who emigrated to England ~20 years earlier. By this time her mother is dead, and her younger sister, Hasina, has eloped (“made a love marriage”).
Nazneen goes directly from her village to an apartment in London. She only speaks Bengali and when she suggests to Chanu she take English lessons he doesn’t know why she’d want to do that. Fortunately, there are neighbors who speak Bengali, so she does have people to talk to, but at the same time, this serves to further isolate her because these are the only people she interacts with.
Chanu’s neither mean nor kind; he’s more oblivious/narcissistic, simultaneously ridiculous/delusional and fragile—a very discomforting type of character/person to be around. You know, the kind of person who makes you so mad/frustrated you’re constantly on the verge of tearing a strip off them, but you never do because you know if you did, they’d collapse into a blubbering puddle sobbing about how their feelings are so hurt and they can’t understand why you’re being so mean to them.
So Nazneen doesn’t. She keeps all her feelings to herself, pushes them down, buries them. Chanu and Nazneen have a son, who dies when he’s a few months old. After this, there is a chapter of letters from Hasina, chronicling her increasing misfortunes (in spite of which she remains cheerful), that are used to fast-forward the story to 2001.
The cadence of the letters was a bit strange. They’re written like someone writing in English-as-a-second-language but wouldn’t Hasina be writing to Nazneen in Bengali?
Anyway, by 2001, Nazneen and Chanu have two daughters. Over the years, Nazneen has picked up English from TV and listening to her daughters. Her daughters are her tie to the outside world and a visible reminder that time is passing. But otherwise not much has changed. Chanu is still making plans that will never come to fruition. The neighborhood gossips are still gossiping and the neighborhood loan shark is still loan-sharking.
But then something does change. Chanu borrows money from the loan shark to buy a sewing machine (and a computer). Nazneen learns to sew, and starts taking on sewing jobs. And she begins an affair with the young man, Karim, who brings her sewing work.
Most of this book is sad. Not maudlin Nicholas-Sparks-sad, but bleak. Let’s be honest: I think I would have hated this book if I read it when I was younger. I would have been so frustrated by Nazneen. But now…
Near the end of Brick Lane, Nazneen thinks of Karim:
She had seen what she wanted to see. She had looked at him and seen only his possibilities. Now she looked again and saw that the disappointment of his life, which would shape him, had yet to happen. (355)
That reminds me of how a while ago during a class discussion on gaming, I said something like games are fun because you get to win, which doesn’t happen that often in real life—and my students just stared at me. And I was like, oh yeah, oops! They’re 18, 19. High school graduation and university acceptances are still fresh. (Winning!) Everything is still possible.
Which is to say, I think you’ll appreciate this book more if you’ve experienced some of life’s disappointments first.
Anyway, as I approached the end, I wondered how Ali was going to wrap it up — horribly sad? implausibly happy? — but it was neither. The ending was… hopeful. Loved it. I actually think it makes the book—and considering my usual feeling toward endings is “meh” that’s saying a lot.