This powerful book about a woman discovering her own agency through the lens of the Bangladeshi immigrant experience surprised me at how timeless it felt even though it’s set at the turn of the 21st century. It’s very much in the tradition of classics by Thomas Hardy and Willa Cather, documenting with a fine eye for time and place the interior lives of their flawed and sympathetic characters. It actually came as a surprise to me that this book chronicled the period that it did as it felt somehow older, less modern, but to a very large extent that speaks less to the book than to the rapid tumult of progress in the era covered and, more pertinently, in the places it details. Bangladesh and England with their fraught histories with one another and on their own make excellent backdrops for a study of a woman who learns that there is more to life than just existing.
My only criticism of this novel is that it felt less like a novel than a series of vignettes strung together, mostly competently but occasionally with enough of a leap in the narrative to make the gap noticeable. There are a lot of shockingly underwritten scenes, in the manner of Leo Tolstoy, but unlike the great Russian, Monica Ali wisely refuses to compensate by overwriting other scenes to a dull and grisly death.
I requested this book from my library because I stayed very nearby Brick Lane, in Bethnal Green, when I was in London briefly earlier this year. I was actually a bit disappointed reading it because the Brick Lane I know is quite different just over a decade on, tho I interpret this as an improvement and another sign of rapid progress to the good. Contrasting my visit with the book did emphasize again how oddly underwritten the riot scene, among others, was: Ms Ali is not quite as good describing exteriors as she is at emotion. The novel is still shockingly good for a debut, and definitely belongs on a shelf next to its predecessors as a modern classic.