It appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there was a fair amount of controversy surrounding Monica Ali’s well known novel (shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker prize)….. Why do I say unsurprisingly? Well, in the eyes of the bog-standard reader, largely naive to the realities faced by our growing immigrant population; a novel that details the life of a young Bangladeshi woman living with her new (and much older) husband in the grey suburbs of London and witness to the sputterings of extremist behavior on the estate, born out of discontent with their lot in the UK, was always going to be a fair target for criticism. Marrying the themes of Islam and extremism together always will be, but surely approaching this topic on occasion is essential, is it not?
Other unfair criticism I felt seems to have been directed (at least amongst the good folk out there using Goodreads!) at Nazneen, through whose eyes we view this world of endless grey sky and concrete, quashed hopes and dreams. The main comments seem to focus on her somewhat stoic persona, that stands in stark contrast to that of her husband Chanu, whose lofty opinions and ambitions are placed right out in the open and who, for all his foibles, I simply couldn’t help but love. He is cuddly, he is a dreamer, he has a thirst for knowledge that is admirable and made him feel like a kindred spirit. He is essentially a good man, if slightly misguided, and Nazneen rightly counts her lucky stars that her father chose to marry her off to such an individual.
Stoic she is, and I personally find that attractive. Perhaps I am merely looking at her as someone who has little idea of the reality of what it means to be a Bangladeshi woman, married off to a stranger and sent to live in a foreign land with very little concept of the people, culture or language and perhaps she fulfills some kind of stereotype that I have in my mind. Deep down I hope that isn’t the case, she is admirable as a woman alone, regardless of her culture and background.
I found it incredibly interesting to see how Nazneen’s inner monologue alters as the story develops. From her solitary musings on the glamourous ice skaters gliding across her television screen, the walls of her gloomy flat and the life of her obese, sedentary neighbour across the way, her thoughts, hopes and plans quickly snowball as she begins a passionate affair with Karim, a young and radical young man who heads a local group of Muslims anxious for change; the Bengal Tigers. She is an adulteress, she is going to hell and, as there is not much she can do about her fate, Nazneen has nothing left to lose. Spurred on by the letters her sister sends from Bangladesh where her life has been one of extreme hardship and toil, Nazneen begins to earn her own money, gaining a certain amount of independence, sending money home and standing up to her husband, the local usurer and her thuggish sons and, eventually, her lover.
This is a positive and subtly empowering novel. It is extremely realistic and doesn’t suppose that our heroine, having experienced a degree of liberation is suddenly going to throw her knickers in the air and bound off into the sunset. It is essentially a love story; of one woman and her love for her family, her lover and her community. A tear came to my eye at the end of this book and I realised that the frequent clashes between the immigrant and white communities serve, for me at least, as a mere backdrop for this very simple, very human story.