Adventures in Reading

Fiction: Brick Lane by Monical Ali

I was at an awards dinner recently when a professor mentioned Brick Lane and I interjected, “Oh right, by Monica Ali.” Brick Lane is one of those books that I have intended, and meant, and had all the best wishes to read, but alas it promptly found a home on my shelves and started to collect dust. At least until this dinner and then I promised myself that I would get around to reading Brick Lane before the summer was out.

Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen, a girl from a Bangladeshi village that has an arranged marriage and finds herself in London. Nazneen’s life is interwoven with the fatalism her mother so strongly believed in. When Nazneen was born she was ill and wouldn’t eat, but her mother refused to take her a hospital and swore fate would decide whether Nazneen lived or died. This fatalism follows Nazneen to England and pursues her for much of her life. In contrast, is Nazneen’s sister Hasina. The reader learns of Hasina through Nazneen’s flashbacks and from letters the two sisters’ write. Hasina never relies on her fate and as the more impetuous of the two sisters, she arranges her own marriage and ran away from home.

Nazneen’s story almost entirely unfolds in the small apartment her and her husband Chanu share. Through the birth of three children and the death of one, through her husband’s loan problems, to Nazneen’s affair with a younger man, specific poignant issues move the story and develop the relationships between the characters.

One thing about Brick Lane is that I never really felt as if there was any movement of time. Obviously there was, by the end of the novel Nazneen has had three children and the oldest surviving child is in her early teens. Much of the novel’s time is ushered through a series of letters from Hasina and the reader is kept aware of time from the dates on the letters. But the reader actually experiences very little time in the book. Four three-fourths of the book, Nazneen remains very much the same as she did when she first arrived from the village. There are small suggestions of time, such as the apartment accumulating furniture, but perhaps these were simply too subtle or at least did not greatly effect the characters.

I can’t help but compare Ali to Jhumpa Lahiri if only because they have both written on immigrants from a similar area of the world, but another terrific author also born in Dhaka, Bangladesh is Tahmima Anam. Anam’s first book A Golden Age is “set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence” and is a superb novel too.

P.S. Roger Ebert recently posted a review of the movie, which also has some great additional information about the novel.


Bookworms Carnival: 12th Edition
June 16, 2008, 12:04 pm
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , ,

If you haven’t been participating in the Bookworms Carnival: Why not? It’s a lot of fun, introduces you to knew bloggers, allows other bloggers to meet your website, and you can win prizes. For the 12th Edition of the Bookworms Carnival hosted by Nymeth the theme was fairy tales. Stop over as there are a lot of good things available and if you have not submitted before to the Carnival the next one is right around the corner in July hosted by Jenn at Mixed Metaphors with the theme of relationships.

Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese

Much to my excitement, Mathias B. Freese contacted me and asked me to read his book. I accepted and I enthusiastically told my partner. And then I thought with dread, “Oh no, what if I don’t like it?” While waiting for my copy of Freese’s Down to a Sunless Sea to arrive, I found myself agonizing over my options. I try to be honest when it comes to my adventures good or bad, but what would I say if I did not like a book an author sent me?

Down to a Sunless Sea is a nice collection of fifteen stories that explores relationships between people, society and self. Reoccurring throughout reviews on this collection are comments of its darkness (dark is an oft used adjective here), deviants, and damaged characters. The foreword implicates “hopeless circumstances” and a “transience of life.” I did not leave the book with such a dreadful sense of chiaroscuro but I did close the book with a smile and promptly read it a second time. These are stories of children and their complicated entanglements with adults, stories of the sometimes disturbing influence of our parents, stories that whisper the influence of history and Hollywood, and at least a few stories startlingly different in style that add a richness to Down to a Sunless Sea.

The title story “Down to a Sunless Sea” is a collection of moments from Adam’s childhood. They explore an almost Freudian relationship with his family and mother in particular. “Herbie” is also a young boy and only son in a family with a proud work ethic and poor communication but enough snobbishness to refuse Herbie to join his friend in a shoe polish business. Adam and Herbie live in worlds where the discovery of masturbation is the great American embarrassment. These boys act out, Herbie as quasi-animalistic and Adam expressing non-existing physical ailments. “Billy’s Mirrored Wall” is the tale of the realization of class distinction when Billy comes home and tells his mother of his friend’s wealth. Billy feels “enhanced” by this relationship but Billy concludes the story as an adult and an ingrained sense of class hierarchy. The stories “Mortise and Tenon” and “Unanswerable” also explore fraught or destroyed relationships between child and parent.

Focusing on Judaism and its history, “Alabaster” is of a woman “liv[ing] only in fragments” and the number on her hand indicates her experience with the Holocaust. She relays her story in a metaphor to a boy concluding that he can’t understand, “How could you?”, and that his shelter and youth potentially limit him from grasping what she explains. Following is “Juan Peron’s Hands,” which details the preparation, thoughts, and actions of the man who breaks into Juan Peron’s mausoleum and steals the ex-president of Argentina’s hands. One of my favorites “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Father Was a Nazi,” begins with an all too excellent from Roger Ebert and views Arnold’s peculiar relationship with his father and now America.

One of the quirky almost displaced stories is “The Chatham Bear” and my favorite in the collection. In a local feature story-esque manner, a community’s avid response to an unknown bear appearing in Chatham contributes to the lack of response of the appallingly normal report of a dog killing another dog in front of its owner as well as the narrator’s witnessing of an act of domestic violence. “Little Errands” is an obsessive story of a person living with the dread and concern of second-guessing and nearly the entire story puzzles over whether or not a letter was mailed; however, it is an interesting portrayal of what people unquestioningly accept as the truth and circumstance of their lives. In “Echo” “All Jonathan has are reminiscences” and the story is told from a friend watching Jonathan distance himself from everyone because of possible loss. Jon is “insular” and “Echo” retells the story of narcissistic attraction. “For A While, Here, In This Moment” is a disembodied tale like watching yourself from the outside and an existence to “bear witness.” “Nicholas,” written in the style and voice of a student uninterested in school, challenges his environment and academic structure.

I admit that I did not care for “Down to a Sunless Sea” and “I’ll Make It, I Think.” Reading disjointedly, “Down to a Sunless Sea” has some dense word choice and there are awkward moments when Freese tries to evoke an emotion or response from the reader, but it feels like he’s trying too hard. For “I’ll Make It, I Think” it is more a matter of personal taste and style. I admit my first reading was somewhat confused with the nicknamed appendages and the character’s exploration of sexual frustration and deviancy. If for no other reason, I did not feel these two stories were on equal footing with the other stories. However, as these stories open the collection I admit as a more casual reader I may have chosen not bother finishing, but reading to the end of Down to a Sunless Sea is a worthwhile experience.

Currently available on Bookmooch: Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese.

[1] I would not really say “gosh” but I might as well in my writing.

Other opinions: Out of the Blue, J. Kaye’s Book Blog, Melody’s Reading Corner, Book Chase, Booking Mama, Books Love Me, Errant Dreams Reviews, Kay’s Bookshelf, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, Reading Room, and Puss Reboots.