Monday, June 21, 2004

Novel Bethnal Green

I finished reading Brick Lane by Monica Ali this weekend. It's been sitting on my book shelf for almost a year, so it was time to get a move on.

Initially I found her style jarring, but that disappeared as I got into the story. The fact that Ali writes about Bangladeshi life in London and more pertinently, that it is from the woman's point of view, is probably what generated attention to its publication.

I remember reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles at school and then visiting the locations which Thomas Hardy portrayed in the novel. But although that brought the story to life, it still felt based in another time and place (not least because I don't walk around Dorset like I do Tower Hamlets).

But I see women like Ali's protagonist, Nazneen, on a daily basis, walking along Bethnal Green Road, Vallance Road and Brick Lane. But that's as far as it goes. I've never seen into their lives, beyond the kitchen door of the Bengali homes which I visited during my recent election campaign. Their lives, their world, is like this book was before I picked it up: a closed book.

But even though the story revolves around Nazneen's struggle to make sense of her life in London, her affair with the charismatic Karim, her worries about her sister trying to make her way in Dhaka, it is the underlying theme of culture clash in the novel which drove me onwards.

Nazneen's husband, Chanu, is initially portrayed as the most stereotypical Bengali man you might expect to meet. He's obsessed with being a Big Man, with making himself a success. He's determined to maintain a sense of Bengali decorum and respect by his children, but he struggles to achieve it.

Indeed, Chanu's dashed hopes and dreams, his confusion about what he and his people's role is in Tower Hamlets present the main challenge which faces the community. Can they hold onto their heritage, their way of life in a society which is different to their own?

Ultimately, it is a peripheral character, Mrs Azad, who best sums up the situation facing the Bengali community: 'Assimilation this, assimilation that! Let me tell you a few simple facts. Fact: we live in a Western society. Fact: our children will act more and more like Westerners. Fact: that's no bad thing. My daughter is free to come and go. Do I wish I had enjoyed myself like her when I was young? Yes!'

East London has always been the home of immigrants. From the French Huguenots to the east European Jews to the Chinese in the nineteenth century, Tower Hamlets has been the first port of call for many. As they settle down and make London and Britain their home they cease to be identified as French, Jewish or Chinese. They have become British. And that is what is happening today, with the second and now third generation of Bangladeshis living and growing up in Bethnal Green.

An interesting first book by Monica Ali. The question must be, how will she follow it up? But she probably doesn't need to worry about it at the moment. Maybe I haven't yet heard, but the streets of Bethnal Green, the sights and sounds portrayed in Ali's novel lend themselves to the camera and the small screen. I suspect we may well see an adaptation appearing on our TVs soon.

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