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• Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Monica Ali was born in 1967 to a Bangladeshi father and an English mother in Dhaka, which was at the time part of East Pakistan. Her parents moved to Bolton in England when she was three years old. Her father became a teacher at the Open University and her mother a counsellor.

Monica Ali attended Bolton Girls’ School, followed by Wadham College in Oxford, where she read Economics, Philosophy and Politics. Currently she lives in South London with her husband and two children.

Monica Ali was short-listed in 2003 for the Man Booker Prize for fiction, for the Guardian First Book Award and for the British Book Awards, Literary Fiction Award, for her first novel Brick Lane, published in June of the same year.

Brick Lane was followed by Alentejo Blue, set in Portugal and published in June 2006, followed by In The Kitchen, published in April 2009. Brick Lane was made into a film, which won a British drama film award in 2007.

The novel and the film created a controversy among the Bangladeshi community living in England because they didn’t recognise themselves in Monica Ali’s negative portrayal of the community as being uneducated, backward and rough, which was considered an insult. They claimed that the novel encouraged “pro-racist, anti-social stereotypes”.

Brick Lane is the story of the Bangladeshi Muslim community living post 9/11 in the East End of London but in particular, the story of Nazneen, her husband Chanu and Hasina, Nazneen’s good looking sister, who lives in Bangladesh and who was disowned by her family for eloping at the age of sixteen with her lover and marrying him. Hasina reveals her chaotic day to day life in Dhaka through a series of regular sweet, naïve and sometimes unintentionally funny, sometimes terribly sad letters sent to her sister in London in pidgin English.

Nazneen often goes back to her childhood in her little village in the countryside of Bangladesh, reminiscing about her happy, innocent and carefree childhood with her younger sister Hasina, which now contrasts with her miserable life in her council flat in a tall block in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

Nazneen arrives in London at the age of eighteen, after an arranged marriage with Chanu, who is already established in London and who is unattractive and twice her age. She can’t speak English and has to adapt to her new life in a foreign country with a husband who, although basically kind-hearted, is frustrated for not being able to fulfil his dreams and carry his plans to fruition. He believes to be above most of the Bangladeshi community who are uneducated and lacking a great deal of culture.

Chanu resents the attitude of his superiors who fail to recognise his talent and ingenuity. He considers himself to be a gem in the rough and has a high opinion of himself which makes him a pompous, funny character despite his lucidity and his awareness of the conflict between the first and second generation immigrants, which, to his horror, was portrayed by his eldest daughter Shahana and which made him decide to repatriate his whole family back to Bangladesh.

The strong element of fate which is overwhelming in the novel is challenged, first by rebellious Hasina, who took her fate into her own hands by eloping with the man she loved and then by the submissive Nazneen who goes through different emotional conflicts: the never ending quest for fate and free will, her religious up-bringing and the cultural differences she faces by being a Muslim living in a secular big city.

She carried out small rebellious acts at the beginning of her marriage but her aspiration for autonomy started with her attraction to the handsome, young political enthusiast, Karim, which evolved into a physical and pecuniary independence and the discovery of her freedom of choice in a male dominated community.

The eighteen-year old, once subdued and obedient wife, matures into a forthright independent woman. She discovers her own force and will power, something she was unaware of. She will not be controlled by fate, she will take her own decisions, like not following her husband by going back home. She will remain in London, she will work and look after herself and her two daughters.

Nazneen believes in herself now and knows that she is capable of taking charge of her own destiny.

Brick Lane is a contemporary, and humane story, the characters are shown with all their complexities and are described realistically and in detail whether it’s Mrs Islam, the hypochondriac, evil and manipulative usurer, or Razia the friendly and strong will-powered neighbour, or Shahana, the refractory, provocative and westernised teenage-daughter, or the sweet second daughter, little Bibi who is even tempered, quiet and hard working.

Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is a post-colonial novel written with a great deal of compassion and optimistic hope.

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