Reading challenge book four: Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Book four in my challenge to read one book (I haven’t read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. 

Brick Lane is a bit of a modern classic, and one of those novels that’s been on my list to read for years. I was compelled to finally get round to buying a copy when I started working on an area in Tower Hamlets, although I still haven’t been to the actual Brick Lane. 

I found Brick Lane a painful read, but in a good way. That may sound oxymoronic, but it’s difficult to explain in other terms. What I mean is that my heart ached every step of Nazneen’s journey, from when she was a baby to when we leave her at the end of the novel. Even then, happy as she is, my heart still ached for her, a happy ache, but nonetheless one that I could feel.

For a novel that is set largely in one flat, Brick Lane is all about journeys. Thousands of miles are travelled in this book, maybe more, as Nazneen goes on a journey to find herself, only to realise she was where she wanted to be all along. 

It’s a novel about strong women, the strongest kind of women. Mothers, who just get on with life. There’s Nazneen, who takes on a mothering role with her sister as well as her own two daughters, and the son she loses towards the beginning of the novel. There’s Razia, who builds a life for her children when her husband dies, so focused on the material that it causes her to ignore the plight of her son because she loves him so much she is blind to his faults. But when she finally faces the truth about Tariq, Razia is all mother, letting no one get in the way of her son’s recovery.

Another reason Brick Lane is so heartbreaking yet so powerful is that it is full of lonely characters. Nazneen, who feels isolated in a strange country; Chanu, who never quite finds his place despite all his efforts and ends up calling the place he left years ago home; Razia, who soldiers on despite others looking down on her; Dr Azad, who discovers love is not enough; Karim, who doesn’t know what he wants.

There are many fascinating characters in Brick Lane, but perhaps Karim is one of the most interesting, since we know as little about him as he knows about himself. Although he helps Nazneen to break down her own barriers and learn more about herself, he is unable to let go of the artificial images he creates for himself. He flits from image to image, trying to be the perfect whatever he is trying to be at that time. By the end of the novel we’re unsure of his location, a metaphor perhaps for the way Karim disappears a little more every time he tries to be something he’s not. 

Brick Lane is a beautifully crafted novel, all feelings and emotions wrapped in a setting that reflects the lives of its characters. It has a charming ending, one that left me sighing in bittersweet happiness, and it’s a novel I’m sure I’ll visit again.

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