One would imagine that an infant, thought dead at the moment of birth, before that blissful first breath proves what seemed initial lifelessness a hasty judgement, must have some sort of a destiny, a purpose. And while Nazneen’s life seems at first to be proscribed for, as it does for most women born in those circumstances, it will stretch far and wide. In both the literal and figurative sense, she will travel far from home, far from what she has always known and always believed. When she marries, she and her husband settle in the notorious Hamlet Towers in East London, a magnet for the Bangladeshi community and a place where Nazneen raises children who rail against every word she utters and a husband who is remarkably well meaning, but misguided and always seeming to be at cross-purposes with what his family really needs.
In essence, then, Ali has written deftly of both love and survival. Nazneen is a protagonist we feel ourselves growing with. We often teeter on the edge with her and wonder what this loyal, God-fearing, and devout Muslim will do next. When she eventually begins a relationship with a young Muslim man to whom she is attracted to while he tries to galvanize the community they live in that is being infested with drug abuse and unemployment, we feel that the fragile existence that Nazneen and Chanu have built at a great personal price to the both of them, begins to unravel. But, in the end, the unraveling will be the beginning of becoming whole again. Ali has a brilliant sense of her characters’ feelings and an astute ear for the dialog of the community.
A large part of the narrative consists of letters exchanged between Nazneen and Hasina, her eminently unlucky sister back in Bangladesh, who kicks against fate and has a life to show for it. While this technique contrasts the lives of the two sisters, it slows down the readability of a narrative that would otherwise flow rather nicely. The pidgin English becomes, rather than authentic, rather annoying and one wonders why Ali chose to use so much of it.
Ali has been compared to Zadie Smith of White Teeth fame, but the comparison seems somewhat unfair to the both of them. While Smith can be said to be brilliant, it is an idiosyncratic brilliancy with an almost self-conscious ear hell bent on sussing the humor out of the human condition. Ali has her finger placed gently but firmly on the difficulties and striving that mar the human condition. And the result is writing that is true and clear and heartfelt.
|Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.|