Brick Lane is to London much as the Lower East Side is to New York City. The Irish lived in its decrepit structures, followed by Eastern European Jews escaping pogroms. Bengali immigrants drove the neighborhood's most recent demographic flux, and it is the goal of Brick Lane, a novel by Monica Ali, to document their new lives, particularly those of women.
Following Nanzeen, the story's heroine, we are smuggled inside the home to peer into the living room or beneath the undulating sheets of the conjugal bed. This is not a world we could otherwise explore firsthand, even if we personally knew a competent guide like Nanzeen. She promotes her reader to the kind of tourist all travelers aspire to be, privileged to witness human authenticity seldom accessible to outsiders. However, if this were the limit of Brick Lane it would not necessarily capture or deserve our attention. From the beginning it is easy to loose yourself in Nanzeen's world because Ali's strength as a writer is the vitality of her portrayal: the smells of cardamom and coriander perfume the pages of this novel and the rhythmic clack of sewing machines churning out cheap jeans can be heard until the back cover is shut.
But Nanzeen and her compatriots are stranded in London without the benefits of belonging to a superpower big beyond its britches. They are more vulnerable, more likely to be reborn by their immigration, or, else, to fail.
We aren't given the choice of whether we are born or not, and Nanzeen associates her own powerlessness with the way that--after the howling and screaming--we must acquiesce to the fact of our existence. We certainly can't go back into the womb, but more importantly, it wasn't in our power to stall our delivery in the first place. For Nanzeen, one is a baby, or an immigrant, or a wife; what we do as each of these is extraneous to the fact that suddenly we have become them. Fate is key, setting the terms for how we live. Ironically, Nanzeen is reborn in London, but her rebirth occurs against her own insistence on the supremacy of fate. At thirty-four, she is suddenly "startled by her own agency like an infant who waves a clenched fist and strikes itself upon the eye." Birth never looses its existential importance, just its orienting lesson.
Ali's book was resoundingly praised. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Ali was named as one of the best young British writers. I suspect that everyone's enthusiasm for the novel is, in part, that Ali is like a magician revealing all her secrets. Every Western country is facing off with its Muslim populations, and no one has offered a definitive way of protecting civil rights while preserving security. This book, however, provides its readers a look at a community that, frankly, frightens them; it is, in short, an education. And we have a better chance of surviving our most current mess of civilization if there is less smoke and fewer mirrors.